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London Local Authorities Bill [H.L.]

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the promoters of the Bill have leave to suspend any further proceedings thereon in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament, provided that notice of their intention to do so is lodged in the Office of the Clerk of the Parliaments not later than 12 noon on Thursday 4th November next;

That the Bill be deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the Parliaments not later than noon on the second sitting day in the next Session with a declaration annexed, signed by the agent, stating that the Bill is the

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same in every respect as the Bill at the last stage of the proceedings thereon in this House in the present Session;

That the proceedings on the Bill in the next Session of Parliament be pro forma in regard to every stage through which the Bill has passed in the present Session, and that no new fees be charged to such stages;

That the Private Business Standing Orders apply to the Bill in the next Session only in regard to any stage through which the Bill has not passed during the present Session.--(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to; and it was ordered that a Message be sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.

Food Standards Bill

3.32 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [The Food Standards Agency]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 10, leave out ("main").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, during the Committee stage I suggested that, as the provision is worded, it could be taken to imply that the agency may have or may acquire minor objectives which are not on the face of the Bill. I felt that that was not the Government's intention. In her reply the Minister stated:

    "I suspect that ... we are not particularly at variance in terms of purpose".--[Official Report, 12/10/99; col. CWH 9.]

She then went on to explain why the Government felt that my suggested amendment was unnecessary as drafted. This new version of my amendment is intended simply to clarify that the agency's purpose is twofold; namely, public health protection and wider consumer protection matters. I beg to move.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for once again raising this point. I am obviously something of a "parliamentolic" because when I went home yesterday evening I watched the parliamentary channel on television. I caught two items. One concerned the House of Commons--the other place--and the other concerned the Committee for Privileges, whose deliberations I found fascinating. I came to realise the importance of the first clause of a Bill. It was explained in great detail by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn.

In the Grand Committee and at subsequent meetings we discussed the purpose of Clause 1. As it is currently set out, it expresses very adequately and correctly what we all want the Bill to do. The removal of the word "main", which is what the amendment proposes, would quite severely restrict what the food standards agency could do, and all of the matters on which I was asking for clarification in Grand Committee--nutrition, openness and other issues that will arise later in our deliberations--would be

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automatically excluded. For that reason it is not possible for us to support the amendment. I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that raising these points at a later stage of the Bill, as we have sought to do, is a more appropriate approach.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am surprised to find my two amendments, Amendments Nos. 2 and 21, grouped with Amendment No. 1 because they seem to be entirely in a contrary sense. If anything, they seek to widen the scope of the Bill rather than to narrow it. They refer to points which I raised in Committee.

At present, Clause 1(2) specifies the main objectives of the agency in carrying out its functions as,

    "to protect public health from risks ... and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers".

Everything turns on what the word "interests" means. Does it or does in not include wishes and preferences; or does it mean what the agency thinks would be good for the consumer? As the Bill is drafted, there is a real risk that the agency will interpret its duties in the latter sense; that is, to do good for the consumer--the nanny state--rather than being also concerned about the interests and wishes of the consumer. If that happens, we shall have to say goodbye to consumer preference and we shall say goodbye to variety, flavour, local traditional products and so forth. Already, the European Union has taken us far down that route. I do not believe that that is what the public want. Where risks are small and gastronomic benefits, to some at least, are great, I do not believe that consumers should be forbidden from purchasing foods. They should be informed of the risks and be allowed to behave like adults and make a choice. That is what we do about alcohol and smoking. That is what is right and that is what the public want. Amendments Nos. 2 and 21 would make it clear that the agency must have regard to consumer preferences and use proportionality in defining and policing what consumers are allowed to buy.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Northbourne and in doing so support the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in his unwillingness to support the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. There are all kinds of different expectations about foods. We live in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country. I think immediately of the Jamaicans who like their meat nearly rotten. An environmental health officer who saw that meat could immediately condemn it. Is it right that we should forbid them to eat the kind of product that they have been used to eating all their lives and which they enjoy because someone thinks that there might be a few bugs in it, especially when the meat is going to be cooked? There are other aspects with regard to fruit and vegetables. For example, we have often had discussions in your Lordships' House about the size of apples. Children like little apples and one cannot buy little apples in supermarkets. I strongly support the two amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, with regard to removing the word "main", a Bill as far-reaching as this one

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should have on its face a clear objective. If it has more than one clear objective, those objectives should also be listed as the objectives of the Bill and the agency which it seeks to set up.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, after the objective set out in Clause 1(2) which is described as the "main" objective, what other objectives are set out in the Bill? If there are no other objectives, surely the word "main" is otiose.

The Earl of Radnor: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I, too, am slightly surprised at this grouping. The first amendment is of enormous importance. The word "main" is very damaging. There is no definition later in the Bill of other duties that might be performed by the various committees and authorised persons. Those duties might be anything.

This is a fairly powerful measure. Again people are allowed to enter premises, question, take away samples and so forth. It would be nice, indeed proper, to know that this provision relates merely to food safety and nothing else, instead of leaving the whole situation hanging. The reference is to the "main objective". The suggestion is that there are other, hidden objectives--a hidden agenda. We are dealing with a perfectly sensible food standards Bill. Let us merely indicate that objective, and not hint at other objectives that might arise later.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I am not so concerned with the word "main". However, I hope that the Minister, in replying, might elucidate "protect", which I believe to be the key word. There is a great deal of difference between protecting consumers by warning them, and protecting them by prevention. It is an entirely different matter. I hope that the Minister will make that point clear.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, this short but interesting debate has illustrated the importance of the clause. We debated its structure and meaning at some length in Grand Committee. The debate has also illustrated that once we begin to deconstruct individual words we recognise why parliamentary counsel choose them very carefully. It is possible for them to mean different things to different people, and their meaning in normal parlance may be different from their meaning in statute. The debate and the amendments tabled suggest that further clarification is needed in regard to Clause 1(2). I hope it will be helpful to the House if I recap on the intended effect of that provision.

The "main objective" as set out in Clause 1(2) provides the agency with a clear and unequivocal main objective consisting of two related goals: first, and most importantly, of protecting public health in relation to food; secondly, of protecting the wider food-related interests of consumers. We shall discuss the importance of labelling later in our discussions. I know that it is a particular concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford.

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However, I must emphasise that the word "main" applies to the objective as a whole and not merely to the public health protection part of the clause. The provision therefore encapsulates the agency's central purpose without implying that any aspect of it is optional.

That is particularly important because food safety and nutrition, which are broadly covered by public health protection--the issue referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes--cannot easily be separated from the wider consumer interests dealt with in the second part of the objective. When we discussed nutrition at an earlier stage the point was made how important it was not only to take a microbiological view of safety but to be able to look to the long-term health implications of nutrition and the advice that the agency might make available. However, the fact that public health protection comes first makes clear that it takes priority over the latter part of the objective. That point was made during the course of the debate.

Some noble Lords have suggested that the word "main" is otiose. The word is used also to reflect the fact that the agency will have other objectives that supplement the primary objective. Some of those are already provided for in the Bill. For example, the objectives of consultation, liaison and openness are referred to in Clause 22(2) dealing with the agency's statement of objectives and practices; and the supplementary objectives on animal feed matters are contained in Clause 9. The main objective is spelt out in Clause 1. But as we discussed at some length in Grand Committee, the agency should also have the objective, for example, of being a transparent and accountable public body. It is not the main objective--the main purpose for which it is set up is the protection of public health--but it would be wrong to deny that the agency should have an objective of behaving in a proper manner and--I shall shortly refer to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne--also a proportionate manner. Those are objectives, but they are not necessarily set out in Clause 1(2).

Clause 22 also provides for the agency to introduce further objectives of its own. Those could, for example, be used to elaborate on the areas of activity that the main objective provided for in Clause 1 will cover, or to describe more fully how the agency intends to carry out its functions. Amendments have been tabled which encourage exactly that kind of approach in order to expatiate on some of the issues raised in Committee.

The main objective in Clause 1 does not, therefore, exclude subsidiary objectives. However, perhaps I may reassure the House that it does not mean that the agency will be able to redefine its fundamental purpose by drawing up new objectives. The whole point of making it a main objective is to set down the essential scope of the agency's activities. Limiting it in the way that the amendment purports to do would be unduly rigid. It would also lead to inconsistency with the provisions of Clause 22.

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I reiterate what I said in Committee. I believe that the objectives of all sides of the House are very close, and that the main objective is clearly and specifically defined. There are real difficulties in attempting to draw it too tightly. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will consider withdrawing the amendment.

I now turn to Amendments Nos. 2 and 21, the first of which relates to the agency's main objective. I agree that the agency's actions should not have an unfair or disproportionate impact on specialist minority or niche food producers. I should also like to record how significant a part of our strength and diversity as a food producing nation such products are. Many of them represent a distinct part of our food heritage, the value of which I believe our trading partners overseas, as well as consumers in this country, are beginning to recognise. I hope that some of the marketing aids that were recently announced will provide help to the industry. It is therefore most important that the agency should not behave in a way that is liable to cause unreasonable damage to consumers' interests in enjoying the healthy diversity of food products and food qualities.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that it is going too far to suggest that the agency should take a proactive role in protecting consumers' preferences in relation to matters of taste, texture or character, as the first of these amendments seems to imply. These are ultimately matters of both personal choice and personal definition. They are for the market rather than the regulatory authority to determine. We have all seen how consumer preferences are changeable. It would be difficult for the agency to protect them in a coherent way. We all have experience of food that is appetising but not nutritious and, equally, food that is nutritious but not appetising. There are difficulties in trying to put those kinds of definitions into the statute.

However, I understand the concerns that have been expressed. Noble Lords may be reassured to learn that the agency will be required under Clause 22 to consult consumers and their representatives on its activities. By virtue of Clause 23 the agency is bound to take account of any costs or risks relating to taste, diversity and so on that consumers identify. I am sure that those who represent the interests of minority groups of consumers will make their views known. The agency will also be required to consult, where relevant, representatives of those who produce specialist or minority products. The same duty to take accounts of risks, costs and benefits will ensure that the agency's actions and decisions do not have an unreasonable or disproportionate impact on their interests. We do not believe that the agency would retain public support if it took an over-the-top or heavy-handed regulatory approach, and we would not expect it to do so.

As a further safeguard, the agency will be required to operate within the framework of better regulation and adhere to its basic objectives. We have given a commitment that the agency's statement of objectives and practices will embrace the principle of better regulation, and that is where the concept of

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proportionality is so important. The agency will be held accountable, and its actions may be open to judicial review in cases where it acts unreasonably.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is reassured as to the rigour of the constraints under which the agency will operate both under the Bill and in the broader context of government. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness is prepared to withdraw her amendment.

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