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The Earl of Radnor moved Amendment No. 9:

Page 7, line 14, at end insert ("(including conditions relating to hygiene precautions to be taken while exercising powers in pursuance of the authorisation)").

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On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Countess of Mar moved Amendment No. 10:

After Clause 16, insert the following new clause--


(" . The Secretary of State shall provide for an appeal to a tribunal against any decision of an enforcement authority, or of an authorised officer of such an authority, pursuant to sections 26(2)(e) and (f) of the Food Safety Act 1990.").

The noble Countess said: My Lords, in tabling this amendment I am aware that the Food Safety Act 1990, at Sections 26(2)(e) and (f), makes provision by regulations for,

    "an appeal to a magistrates' court or, in Scotland, to the sheriff, or to a tribunal constituted in accordance with the regulations, against any decision of an enforcement authority, or of an authorised officer of such an authority; and ... as respects any appeal to such a tribunal, for the procedure on the appeal (including costs) and for any appeal against the tribunal's decision".

In fact, no tribunal has ever been constituted under the Act. There are a number of reasons why I believe that it would be helpful to have this amendment on the face of the Bill.

First, in the case of the Meat Hygiene Service, it has become clear that the current appeal mechanism is totally unsatisfactory. A complaint by an abattoir or cutting plant owner or manager about the actions of an official veterinary surgeon goes initially to the appropriate regional director of the Meat Hygiene Service. He then refers it to the principal official veterinary surgeon who then consults the official veterinary surgeon against whom the complaint is made.

If the complainant is unsatisfied with the outcome, he must then complain to the operations director and, if still not satisfied, to the chief executive. As noble Lords will see, the system comprises a closed loop. Each "investigator" is part of the line management and it would hardly be surprising if at least some of the investigations did not result in a partial determination. Clearly, there is need for an independent and, I stress, impartial, appeals mechanism. I understand that the Meat Hygiene Service is currently addressing the matter and that at a recent meeting of a working group of the Meat Industry Forum there was unanimous agreement that such a tribunal is needed. The head of Meat Division 1 and the chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service agreed to formulate some proposals. I would be grateful if the Minister can arrange for me to have the promised copy of the minutes of the meeting and perhaps advise me of progress.

My other example is what has become known as the Duckett's cheese case. Noble Lords may recall that in April 1998 a young boy was infected by E.coli 0157. This was traced to a batch of cheeses produced by Mr Duckett in Somerset. To cut what has become a saga short, a Section 13 order under the 1990 Food Safety Act was placed on all the cheeses produced by Mr Duckett. This involved a considerable quantity of cheese held for maturing by a Mr Aldridge in Surrey. Despite extensive testing no contamination was ever found in Mr Aldridge's cheeses. Under a Section 13

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order there is no provision for compensation. The only course open to Mr Aldridge was to apply for judicial review. This procedure was expensive, time consuming and unsatisfactory as far as Mr Aldridge was concerned simply because the court could only determine whether the Minister made the correct decision on the basis of the information she was given.

Mr Aldridge lost his case on appeal by the Department of Health. The department has agreed to pay most of the costs. It is Mr Aldridge's contention that it was the information given to the Minister which was flawed. There is no mechanism available to him to have the adequacy of the system under which the officials operated reviewed, despite the provisions in the 1990 Act for a tribunal. The result has been a huge expenditure of public money--I wonder how many hip operations could have been covered by it--the loss of most of his business and his health to Mr Aldridge, and a suspicion that there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The most common cause of complaint is that officials have made unfair decisions or unreasonable demands. Many of these complaints could be settled cheaply and rapidly if there was an independent and impartial tribunal to hear the cases. As tribunal case law built up, both officials and producers would recognise the boundaries and the services of the tribunal would be needed less and less frequently. Therefore it is unlikely to be a significant drain on the public purse. On the contrary I believe that such a system would show considerable savings.

If the Minister is unable to accept my amendment, I hope that she will be able to give me a firm assurance that the Government will use the provisions already in the 1990 Act to set up a single system for appeals when the Bill becomes law. There is already a model upon which any appeal system can be based in the Meat Hygiene Appeals Tribunal that deals with revocations of, and refusals to, grant licences. Perhaps the Minister will consider broadening the current review of that tribunal. I beg to move.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, my Amendments Nos. 11 and 15 are grouped with Amendment No. 10, which the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has just moved. I wish to support that amendment strongly. At earlier stages of the Bill we discussed the appeals system at great length. The Minister kindly sent me--and I suspect others--a full letter on the various aspects of appeals. That makes one realise how complicated some aspects of the matter are. I believe that a single system for appeals would assist greatly.

As regards appeals and the Meat Hygiene Service, I agree with the noble Countess, Lady Mar, that the current position is most unsatisfactory. I also support her desire to create an independent and impartial tribunal. We on these Benches support that strongly. At earlier stages of the Bill we discussed at length the Duckett's cheese case. I shall not do so again except to say that I think all of us in the Chamber believe that

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the outcome is not the one that we would have wished. However, that outcome arose because of the way the system is constructed.

Having shown our support for the noble Countess's amendment, I speak now to Amendments Nos. 11 and 15 standing in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Luke. I shall speak to the two amendments together as they are simply an attempt to find a route which is acceptable to the Government. In Committee the Minister told us that the agency would establish an internal complaints procedure. She also told us that there are various complaints channels already established by the Acts to which this Bill relates. We accept that all of this is so; but we do not agree with it. We do not wish to see the establishment of a much needed food standards agency whose modus operandi results in extra cost for those whom it controls any time they want to complain about those workings. We do not want to see the passing of an Act which turns out to be a "legal eagle's" meal ticket, as indeed the Duckett's case perhaps was.

We do not wish to imply simply that we expect the agency to be wrong in its dealings. We are, however, only too well aware of some of the moves towards a European food safety Act and the fact that some countries--for example, France--already have legislation that they claim parallels this. We anticipate that there will be difficulties over the interpretation of the law, the establishment of methods of working and the rights of the agency in areas such as observation, required periods of notice prior to visiting and such like.

The situation will become even more muddled if there are different routes deemed appropriate to different problems. It is the responsibility of the agency to handle complaints speedily and effectively. Such responsibilities should be on the face of the Bill. By these amendments we are suggesting to the Minister that there should be either an appeals procedure set up and run by the agency, or a complaints procedure instituted by the Secretary of State.

Lord Monson: My Lords, the House will be aware that over the years my noble friend Lady Mar has done a tremendous amount of meticulous research into the way in which so many small producers have, unhappily, been unjustly treated by authority--however one may define "authority" at any given moment. I hope that your Lordships will support her amendment or, failing that, support one of the two opposition amendments, which may be the next best thing.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Monson, I pay tribute to the expertise in this area of the noble Countess, Lady Mar. We on these Benches support her aim of seeking assurances from the Minister with regard to the setting up of the tribunal under Section 26(2)(e) and (f) of the Food Safety Act 1990, which is how we read the speech made by the noble Countess in moving her amendment.

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Your Lordships will know that in Committee and on Report I mentioned the Duckett's cheese case as a prime example of where the mechanisms must be improved if small producers are not to be prejudiced by the power of the enforcement authorities. We support the noble Countess's call for assurances in that respect while perhaps not going so far as to support the totality of the amendment.

Turning to Amendments Nos. 11 and 15, we have considerable doubts about whether a single, "one size fits all" appeal system will be preferential for those affected by decisions of the food standards agency. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned the letter that the Minister was kind enough to send to us. It may have been sent to the Front Benches only; I do not know. The letter makes very clear, in considerable detail, the sheer quantity of powers to be exercised by the Food Standards Agency. It contains something like eight different forms of appeal--in magistrates' courts, before tribunals, in terms of judicial review, and so on.

Those forms of appeal have different contexts, different fora and different purposes. Simply to take one kind of appeal--which, in other cases, normally would be decided under powers taken by a local authority--and translate that into a different form of appeal applicable to the Food Standards Agency, may lead to an injustice. For instance, the rules of procedure in a magistrates' court may be more beneficial to an individual affected by a particular case. I am not saying that is necessarily the case, but to have a blanket form of appeal in those circumstances could be very dangerous.

We have had some assurances about the complaints system. Perhaps the Minister can be more specific about the requirement for the agency to establish a complaints system. The procedure would fall short of a legal appeals process but it would enable individuals to air their complaints and may give them an opportunity for compensation. We need to know more from the Minister about the kind of requirement which will be imposed on the agency in those circumstances. We need to know what kind of complaints system is envisaged and the time-scale within which it will be put into place.

It would be very helpful if the Minister could give us an idea of the time-scale--after Third Reading and the Bill has passed through both Houses--in which the mechanisms will be put in place and when the agency will be fully up and running. That would reassure some of us about how the whole process will work.

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