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Baroness Byford: Before the Minister replies, I should like to refer to the whole question of age, which I do not recollect seeing included. So many committees to which one puts one's name forward have an age limit and I wondered whether that applies in this case. I support the support.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I am happy to answer the first point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, immediately and say there is no age limit, and I am very glad to do that. I listened with great interest to the noble Viscount and I accept very much the need and responsibility for a great deal of care to be put into the process of appointment in ensuring that the people who are appointed are of a very high standard. I do not think any noble Lord would disagree with that.

I am grateful also for the opportunity to tell your Lordships a little more about the process of appointment and how we will ensure that the points raised by the noble Viscount are adequately covered. I have no doubt that getting very high quality people with leadership skills as members of the agency is crucial to its success and in ensuring that the public have great confidence in what it is doing.

We think that the Bill's provision contained in Clause 2(3)(b) ensures that the question of conflict of interest will be considered when appointing members. A provision in paragraph 9 on publishing the register of members' interests also ensures that this information is in the public domain.

I also draw the Committee's attention to a change made to the Bill in another place where the Government accepted an Opposition amendment to give the agency a duty to publish a register of members' interests. I am sure the Committee will agree that this is a very important guarantee of openness and transparency.

I recognise the anxiety about conflicts of interests. If the appointments process failed to assess this matter thoroughly the consequences could clearly be serious. I need hardly say that the appointments process in any case has been conducted under Nolan rules. These require applicants to sign a declaration about conflicts of interests. The information supplied to applicants made it clear that it was essential for all agency members to serve without any actual or perceived significant conflict of interest. The interviewing panels were and are scrutinising the information supplied by applicants in the declaration. Application forms and CVs are very important as regards the probing of applicants at an interview.

We have said all along that the people appointed to the agency will be appointed on the basis of their individual qualities and experience, not to represent

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particular interests. On that basis we have not invited any organisations to propose people for membership. Indeed we placed advertisements in June, inviting individuals to apply, and we made it clear that we would not consider anyone unless he or she had submitted an application. I am pleased to say that there was a good response and over 120 people applied for the posts of chair and deputy, and well over 600 people applied to serve as members.

An interview panel made up of representatives from the Department of Health, from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards as the independent assessor, has now considered all the applications for the posts of chair and deputy. The Secretary of State and his equivalents are now considering the shortlist and we expect an announcement in the next few weeks. As regards members, interview panels are now considering member applications. Again, it is hoped that those who are appointed will be announced in December. I hope I have indicated that these appointments are being conducted in a rigorous way which will ensure that the chair, deputy and members of the agency will be people of the highest calibre, integrity and probity. That, of course, is absolutely right if this agency is to get off on the right foot, as we all wish. I hope that I have reassured the noble Viscount on that.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Byford: Before my noble friend replies, I ask the Minister a question following on from yesterday's discussions when my noble friend Lord Rotherwick, who is not in his seat at the moment, raised the whole question of the make-up of the committee of 12 members.

I know that notices have gone out and people have put their names forward, but can the Minister clarify whether any appointments will be made before this Bill has reached the statute book? That might be of concern to us. What is the position?

Lord Clement-Jones: Perhaps I may ask another question, so that the Minister has to rise again only once. In his response I heard him talk about Schedule 2 in terms of the declaration of interests. Can he give chapter and verse, because I must confess that I have looked through it and I cannot see the relevant wording. When we composed the amendment, we certainly looked quite carefully at the Bill to see what requirements it contained as regards the declaration. I know that the Minister referred to the substantive clause, but there was a further reference to the schedule in what he said which I could not quite understand.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: That was my fault-- I should have said paragraph 9 of Schedule 1. If I confused the noble Lord by not mentioning the schedule, I apologise.

As far as the other point made by the noble Baroness is concerned, my understanding is that those appointments will be made after the Bill is cleared.

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Viscount Thurso: I am grateful for that reply, both for the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has accepted the spirit in which we moved the amendment and for his reassurance as to the examination of candidates to ensure both the quality that they will be required to display and an open declaration of their interests.

I am grateful for the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in relation to age. I had not thought of it, but it is a valid one. As the years go by, I think of it more and more. I am equally pleased that the Minister was able to reassure the Committee.

There was one point in the Minister's reply that I found particularly important, and with which I agree. He said that people will be appointed as individuals to act--if I can coin a phrase from your Lordship's House--“on their own honour". It is vastly better than having a bunch of people sent in by various representational sections which always ends up with the wrong kind of politics. I am very pleased that people are being appointed for their individual ability and that some experience may not preclude them from being appointed.

In the light of the Minister's response, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Advisory committees]:

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 104:

Page 25, line 43, at end insert--
(“( ) Before appointing a person as chairman or member of the advisory committee, the authority making the appointment shall have regard to the desirability of securing that a variety of skills and experience is available among the members of the committee (including experience in matters related to food safety and standards including nutrition and labelling or other interests of consumers in relation to food).")

The noble Lord said: Far be it for me to praise government drafting, but Clause 2(3)(a) is admirable in its effect on the way in which the agency itself will be made up. That is wording to which we can all subscribe as far as it applies to the agency itself in terms of ensuring that there is a variety of skills available to members of the agency. It goes on at greater length in terms of the experience relating to food safety or other consumers' interests. That is an excellent assurance to members of the public that the agency will not just be sectoral in the way that it is composed.

By the same token, consumer organisations feel that they ought to be made explicit in terms of the advisory committees of the agency, and the purport of this group of amendments, Amendments Nos. 104, 106, 109 and 110, is designed to reflect the same wording in so far as they reflect the other advisory committees for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where they are set up for the regions of England, and any other advisory committees.

That kind of safeguard is needed, but I cannot see that it is necessarily encompassed within Clause 2(3)(a) itself, and I do not know that one could read into that

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clause a duty to ensure that advisory committees have the same requirement for a variety of skills. I await the Minister's reply with interest. I beg to move.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.38 to 5.48 p.m.]

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I respond to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. First, I thank him for his congratulations to the Government on the skills with which we have put this in. I notice that his congratulations did not go to the extent that he repeated word for word the words in the Bill; he has added one or two words in relation to nutrition and so on, which we have already debated.

We wholly endorse the principle underlined in the amendments of having a variety of interests among members of committees, but we do not consider it right to spell this out in the Bill for advisory committees. Apart from the regional committees, with which I shall deal first, we are essentially dealing with non-statutory committees. We believe the agency needs some flexibility on how those should be set up.

In relation to the regional committees, the appropriate authorities will wish to ensure that they are not dominated by one particular interest. It is right, however, that they should exercise their own judgment in relation to that. I am tempted to quote again from the Liberal Democrat manifesto on the power of competence of the devolved authorities, but I shall resist. As far as the specialist advisory committees are concerned, they are clearly key to ensuring that the agency's actions are all based on the best available science. Members of those committees will of course have to be appointed on merit and be clearly recognised as the best possible people in their particular field.

I would expect the agency to follow the Government's practice and include public interest or consumer representation on these committees. I remind the Committee that the agency itself, in considering their advice, will ensure that the wider public interest is taken into account. We should not rule out the possibility that the agency might need some purely specialist committees, including for example perhaps a specialist consumer committee. We have already debated the subject of nutrition labelling at some length so I will not repeat the arguments deployed on those matters in relation to the wording of the noble Lord's amendments. We do, however, seem to have the balance right in terms of setting out the principles in relation to the appointment of members to the agency. It is also right to allow some discretion as far as the regional committees and the specialist committees are concerned.

I turn to the suggestion made by the noble Lord concerning the concept of lead authority in relation to joint committees. I appreciate the reasons for the noble Lord's suggestion. One has to reflect that the reason for wishing to have joint committees is that more than one department may need their advice. It will be important in that respect to ensure that an impression is given of joint ownership rather than of one department seeking to dominate the other. We must

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avoid the impression that one authority has a greater right to the committees' time or could exercise undue influence in setting the work programme. That would be damaging and should be avoided. It is important that advisory committees retain their independence to advise on matters within their remit.

In practice it is sensible for the administrative lead of any committee to lie with one department or body. I refer to preparing agendas and circulating papers. That is already achievable through the Bill as drafted. The arrangements made to establish a joint committee mentioned in paragraph 8(1) to this schedule could well cover administrative support to the committee. We recognise that the work of a committee is unlikely to divide exactly between the sponsoring authorities. It is likely that one authority with a major interest will shoulder much of the administrative burden. That could change over time, however, and it would be wrong to fix a division of responsibilities that might in time prove not to be appropriate. In those circumstances I hope that the noble Lord might agree to withdraw his amendment.

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