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The Earl of Radnor: My Lords, I approach this series of amendments in perhaps a nai ve way, having all my life followed the dictum, "A little of what you fancy does you good." Individuals are all different and nutrition for one--for instance, sugar--may be quite wrong for someone else. I feel that the individual should be allowed a little bit of common sense and not be nursed along too much.
The other main difficulty I see as a producer of food--oily fish in point of fact--is the whole problem of labelling and getting the message across. If we have the labels we have just been talking about, who will advise on the nutritional value? We have just heard that differences of opinion occur. I have a feeling, secretly in my heart of hearts, that this is something which should not be on the face of the Bill. By all
Lord Rea: My Lords, again I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for proposing this group of amendments. Long ago I gave up any hope of persuading my noble friend to include the word "nutrition" on the face of the Bill, but she knows well that that is not for want of trying.
I have just received a list of "ideal" objectives for the food standards agency that was sent to me by the National Heart Forum--previously known as the National Co-ordinating Committee for the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease--membership of which I have declared on a number of occasions. The objectives with regard to nutrition were drawn up by dietary and nutritional experts forming the "Sustain" group of the National Food Alliance. Can my noble friend say whether the food standards agency will in fact, though unstated in the Bill, fit its activities to the following objectives? First, the agency should oversee the monitoring and surveillance of the nutrient content of food and the nutrient content of the diet. Secondly, it should provide authoritative, factual information about the nutrient content of foods and advice on diet as a whole. Thirdly, it should secure expert scientific advice on the relationship between diet, nutritional status and health, to support the definition of a healthy diet and to inform policy. Fourthly, it should provide the definition of a "balanced diet". And fifthly, it should provide practical guidance in relation to nutritional aspects of the food chain, including production and catering.
Of course, I do not expect my noble friend to accept those lock, stock and barrel today. But I should be grateful if she could say whether her concept of the food standards agency's role and objectives will encompass those principles. Of course, I shall pass the list to her for her further perusal.
In some ways, we have had an almost parallel debate to the one that we had on labelling. I am pleased with the enthusiasm that is implicit in what has been said in the House today for the job that the agency will have to do. In a way, we are trying to make it into an effective agency; that is to say, one which delivers effective policies in areas that are of great concern to us, including labelling and nutrition. It is my responsibility today to bring the attention of the House back to the fact that what we are actually doing is legislating to establish a food standards agency. We have to scrutinise this legislation to see whether, as drafted, it will allow the agency to do the job that noble Lords have suggested they wish to see done.
We acknowledged at the time of publication of the White Paper that there were substantial areas where the agency and departments would have to work closely together. Given the links between diet and health, which has been mentioned today, it makes no sense at all to try to establish rigid and inflexible boundaries. Indeed, it is a prime example of where we need joined-up government if we are actually to deliver.
I hope that I can assure noble Lords that, as well as having a clear remit, the agency is being established with the expertise that it needs to take forward its responsibilities for nutrition. The nutrition unit of the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group will transfer to the agency. However, I have to tell the House that I do not believe it either necessary or, indeed, helpful to try to build in the explicit reference to "nutrition" that the noble Baroness proposes in her amendment.
The main aim and functions of the Bill encompass the nutrition remit. If we took a phrase like "nutritional standards", I suspect that we would end up going down the route of defining the agency's nutrition responsibilities in specific and even in restrictive terms. I know that this will not be welcomed by the House, but I have to point out that the Food Safety Act already provides an effective framework for taking any necessary regulatory or legislative action in the nutrition area that might be required.
In general, the Government do not believe that regulation is necessarily the right way forward to raise standards of nutrition in this country. We do not believe that it should be a matter of telling people what they should eat and drink. As many noble Lords have already pointed out, it is very difficult to tailor that information and advice on an individual basis. We have to ensure that people can receive the best advice, information and encouragement to make sensible choices for themselves, providing that the food which is delivered is safe and that there is a proper and appropriate regulatory system for ensuring that safety. It is difficult to see what benefit would be gained from requiring that the agency should establish nutrition standards throughout the United Kingdom.
The noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, raised the issue of the difficulty for consumers in understanding advice in relation to the findings on dioxins and PCBs in marine fish. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Earl that the results to which he referred were published in full at the end of July and sent out to media, consumer organisations and environmental groups by MAFF. They were considered by the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, which recommended that adults should
If we took the amendment as drafted, I have to tell the House that it would restrict the agency's nutrition remit; indeed, the wording does not begin to capture many of the things that the agency will do in the nutrition area, especially as regards giving advice and information and working with the health promotion bodies. I believe that the latter was something that noble Lords in Committee certainly wanted the agency to do, and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Rea would also be of the same view.
I am aware that there are many people who ask, "If the Bill doesn't mention nutrition, how can we trust the Government, or some future government, not to change the agency's remit later?" I understand that concern, although I hope that I have given the House enough of an assurance to put the Government's intention beyond doubt. However, as my noble friend said, I said that I would take the matter away and look at ways in which we could perhaps make more explicit the responsibilities regarding nutrition. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked me if I could say a little more in that respect.
We believe that the foundations on which to build for the split of responsibilities between the agency and health departments to command consensus support are in the White Paper. We now intend to build on those foundations by setting out very clearly, in writing in the surrounding documentation, the agency's involvement in nutrition. The two main areas in which this will be done are through the agency's statement of objectives and practices and through the published concordats.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, pointed out, Clause 22 requires the agency to prepare a general statement of its objectives and practices, which must be approved by Ministers. I can today give the House a guarantee that Ministers will not approve the statement unless it describes the agency's general objectives in the nutrition area. That statement will, of course, be published and laid before Parliament. I believe that that usefully picks up the helpful suggestion made by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in his amendment, which indicates that such a statement is a good way of demonstrating exactly what the agency will do as regards nutrition.
The agency will also have a public service agreement, which will be published in the usual way. More detailed objectives and targets will also be published each year. This will provide an opportunity for the public to see exactly what the agency is doing in fulfilment of any objectives it agrees on its nutrition remit. Of course, the agency will report on its achievements in its annual report.
One further point is that the Secretary of State for Health announced earlier this week a new specialist advisory committee, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which will take over from COMA. One of the reasons for establishing this new advisory committee is to take account of the new role of the agency on nutrition matters. The agency and the Department of Health will jointly provide the support and the secretariat for that committee. The new committee will provide a source of the best scientific advice to the agency and to health departments in developing their nutrition policies. I think that gives some idea of the infrastructure that will be needed to ensure that the agency can actually fulfil its responsibilities in relation to nutrition.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked me specifically about advertising and the role of the agency in that regard. I have already referred your Lordships to Section 16 of the Food Safety Act, which explicitly mentions advertising alongside labelling. The agency will be able to advise on the use of these powers in relation to advertising and to give guidance to ensure that advertising connected with food is not misleading. It will also maintain close contact with the other regulatory bodies, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority and the relevant broadcasting authorities. I hope this will be of some reassurance to noble Lords.
This Bill, which is essentially about setting up a new body and giving it general functions and objectives, is set up to operate within the existing framework of the law. It will be for the agency itself to shape the development of that law and, as I said before, to deliver on policy. I get a very strong sense from our debates today that people want to see the agency up and running and delivering in these areas. We want to see it delivering in the area of nutrition. Nutrition is a matter of the utmost importance to public health and is one of the central issues on which we all agree the public need and want good and helpful information.
I believe that the framework I have set out, the advisory committee that is being set up and the explicit references that will be made to the aims and objectives and practices in the general statement which will be laid before Parliament, together with the administrative concordat, should build up a very secure framework within which the agency can work effectively in the area of nutrition.
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