HC Deb 08 February 1956 vol 548 cc1693-701
Mr. J. Nixon Browne

I beg to move, in page 19, line 39, at the end to insert: (5) The said Council may make representations to the Secretary of State on the operation of any regulation, order or code of practice published or, as the case may be, made under any of the sections referred to in the last foregoing subsection, or having effect as if so made. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) is not present in the Chamber at the moment, so that I might pay him the compliment which I had intended to pay to him. During the Committee stage the right hon. Gentleman moved an Amendment to give the Scottish Food Hygiene Council power to initiate consideration of matters relating to hygiene in addition to the power already in the Bill to advise the Secretary of State on questions which he referred to the council. I said that the Secretary of State had sympathy with the proposal and undertook to table a suitable Amendment on Report.

There are a number of subjects dealt with by the Bill on which the council is not the appropriate body to give advice, principally the use of chemical substances in food and the composition of food generally, and questions relating to drugs. Apart from these, we agree, to use the right hon. Gentleman's own words, that we should not withhold from the council the power of thinking for itself and making suggestions to the Secretary of State."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 8th November, 1955; c. 375.] Our recently redrafted Amendment makes it quite clear that the council will have the power to make representations to the Secretary of State on the operation of any regulations made under Clause 7, labelling; Clause 13, hygiene; any order under Clause 14; registration, and any code of practice relating to food hygiene as mentioned in Clause 13. That is, on all the questions on which the council is qualified to advise.

The Amendment enables the council to make representations to the Secretary of State, not only on the regulations which he will make after the Bill becomes law, but also on the existing regulations made under existing law, which are continued in operation by Clause 60 of the Bill as if they had been made under the Bill. The Amendment is wide enough to enable the council to represent to the Secretary of State that regulations should be extended in new directions, as well as to suggest ways in which they might be modified in detail.

Finally, in accordance with the practice with other advisory committees, the Secretary of State will always be prepared to listen sympathetically to any requests by the council to be given a remit to consider any point on which it thinks it can give helpful advice.

Miss Herbison

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) was obliged to leave the Chamber before we came to this Amendment.

The Amendment makes a great improvement to the Bill and is an improvement on the Amendment originally put down for discussion on Report. My right hon. Friend was most anxious that the council should be concerned not only with matters which came to it from the Secretary of State, but that it should be able to take to the Secretary of State matters which it thought that the right hon. Gentleman should have brought to his notice.

This Amendment goes a long way to meet the point made by my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members during the discussions in Committee, but I am not sure whether it will go the whole way as we desired. The council can make representations to the Secretary of State on any regulations that will be or have been made, and on any order or code of practice published; it may suggest extensions to existing regulations or regulations which go to the Secretary of State.

So far, so good. The Government have come quite a long way to meeting the wishes of hon. Members on this side of the House, but it does not seem to me that the wording of this Amendment gives a right to the council to come to the Secretary of State without having any regulation before it. Its powers should be extended so that it can suggest to the Secretary of State that he should make a new regulation about a specific matter. I should like to know whether the Joint Under-Secretary can say that that and similar points under this and other Clauses are covered by the Amendment, because it does not seem to me that they are.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

I support what my hon. Friend has said. We are glad that the Government have gone some way towards meeting the representations made by my right hon. Friend during the Committee stage but, although we do not wish to look a gift horse in the mouth, we feel that the Amendment falls a good deal short of what my right hon. Friend had in mind.

The Amendment says that the council may make representations to the Secretary of State on the operation of any regulation, order or code of practice published or, as the case may be, made under any of the sections referred to in the last foregoing subsection, or having effect as if so made. That is not a very notable advance, since subsection (4) already states that the Secretary of State shall refer the proposals in the form of draft regulations or a draft order or a draft code of practice or otherwise, to the Scottish Food Hygiene Council for consideraion and advice. Anything which is brought into being as a result of the provisions of the Bill must, in the ordinary course of events, be referred to the council. As I understand, the only concession which has been made by the Amendment is that regulations which have already been made may come under the purview of the council.

That is a quite useful provision, and we are glad to see that amount of progress being made, but it is not very much. My right hon. Friend wanted to see the council performing a much more positive function in Scottish life. The Joint Under-Secretary may recollect that during the debate upon this Clause in Committee some of us were rather doubtful about the purposes of the council. There was a long debate about its composition. We were afraid that the Secretary of State intended to use the council as a bulwark against public representations, and it was suggested that if we were to have such a council as this it should be enabled to do more than merely have placed before it draft regulations which the Secretary of State proposed to make.

There is a great deal to be said for a Scottish Food Hygiene Council which can take an enthusiastic responsibility for education in matters of food hygiene, and which, for instance, could publish an annual report and publicise its activities as widely as possible, using its influence in order to raise food hygiene standards. This very modest Government Amendment makes no provision for that sort of body being set up. I am grateful for what the Government are giving us, but I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will reconsider the question in order to see whether we can set up a council which can play a really important and constructive role in this matter.

Mr. Willis

It is rather unfortunate that we have now reached the stage where we can do very little other than accept or reject Amendments, because there is no doubt that the Amendment falls far short of what was envisaged during the Committee stage. It is really only a very small extension of the powers referred to in subsection (3). We wanted to set up a council which had some initiative, so that people might be encouraged to serve upon it. We expressed fears that it would be difficult to get people to take an interest in this body and to give their time and energies to serving upon it unless they felt that they would be given a responsible job to do.

The Amendment goes some way in that direction. The council has been given a certain amount of responsibility, but it is an exceedingly limited amount, and it is entirely dependent upon what the Secretary of State does in relation to issuing regulations. I express some small appreciation at the slight distance which the Government have gone to meet us in this matter, but I express far greater disappointment that they have not taken their courage in their hands and displayed some of the imagination about which they are so fond of boasting at times.

Mr. Ross

I intended to congratulate the Government, but I find myself in such a lonely position on this side of the House that I feel I had better change my mind. It is true that my congratulations were going to be very limited, and tempered by condemnation—because this is the first power of which the council can be at all assured. In the first stage of its duties it deals only with matters that the Secretary of State may from time to time refer to it, if he thinks fit. The Clause then says that he shall"— and then there is an important parenthetical interpolation— (unless it appears to him to be inexpedient to do so having regard to the urgency of the matter) … refer such draft regulations to the council —and that is the extent of its powers, apart from the Amendment.

The Amendment enables the council also to make representations to the Secretary of State upon the working of draft regulations, orders, or anything else which is brought into being by him. The Secretary of State may consult the council before taking action, or he may feel he has not the time to do so and must put them into operation first, saying to the council, "You can look at them after they are in operation."

Scotland is beginning to take this question of food hygiene seriously. We are setting up this council, and I very much regret that the Government are so limiting the scope of its work from the very start that it has no room to grow. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) is right in saying that in the course of years a developing campaign for cleaner food in Scotland is surely a direction in which this council should develop, but the Government have so tied it up, in their cagey approach to the whole question, that it will not be able to develop in that direction. That fact is bound to cause difficulty in finding persons to serve upon it.

I want to ask the Government—and this is where I was hoping to congratulate them; it was really a matter of flattering them in the hope that I might get something out of them—whether the Amendment can be very widely interpreted. It says: The said Council may make representations to the Secretary of State on the operation of any regulation,… What is to be the nature of the limitation placed upon those representations? Can the council, for instance, make representations that considerable public ignorance exists in regard to certain regulations? Can it, within those representations, then suggest that a publicity campaign should be started?

If we can have an assurance from the Joint Under-Secretary that the power granted by the Amendment will be widely interpreted, and that the council will not be limited purely to dealing with the way in which regulations affect certain areas, if it can go on to draw conclusions as to what must be done, we can be satisfied that it will be given some slight scope for initiative.

It is urgently necessary, if the Scottish public are to take this seriously and the people who serve on this council are to take it seriously, that they should have the widest possible powers that can be construed under this one positive power which they are being given virtually at the last minute. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to give us this assurance.

I am sorry that at this late stage we should be saying this, but we do not wish this Scottish Food Hygiene Council merely to be regarded as a sort of creature of the Secretary of State, or a bit of propaganda—a sop thrown to cranks who feel that an extra council with a high-sounding title will, somehow or other, satisfy the complaint that nothing is being done. If that is all that this council does, it will lead to distrust by the public not only of the council but of many other bodies which are doing quite good work. Therefore, can we have from the Joint Under-Secretary an assurance that there will be wide interpretation of the power to make representations to the Secretary of State? Cannot he think of a way, within the scope of the Amendment, to widen still further the powers of the advisory council?

Mr. Steele

I emphasise what has already been said. I think that there is another opportunity available to have this done. It may be that some of my hon. Friends believe that this Bill has already been to another place, but I think that they are confusing it with another Bill in another Session. There has been an interval in which that Bill lapsed and this Bill was introduced here, and there will be another opportunity in another place to have something done.

I believe, when I recall what the Minister said in Committee on this matter, that he was anxious that this council should do a good job. All the powers in the Clause at the moment are powers which give the Secretary of State the initiative to remit matters to the council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) said, there is this important point in the Amendment, that it gives the council an opportunity to take a little initiative in the matter, but it can only do so on regulations which are already in force and make representations to the Secretary of State on those matters.

It seems to me that if the Amendment were extended in another place so that after the words …on the operation of any regulation… there could be inserted, "or any other matter," or words to that effect, that would give the Scottish Food Hygiene Council an opportunity to consider other matters to which they may wish to draw the attention of the advisory council.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. J. Nixon Browne

I want to assure the House that every point made by those who have spoken is, in the view of the Government, met by this deceptively simple Amendment, and by the common practice of the Secretary of State. I have studied this most carefully. Let us think for a moment what it will mean if we give the council the right to make representation on the operation of any regulation. The regulations are, beyond doubt, every regulation that has been or will be passed within the field appropriate to the advisory council. To make a representation on the operation of a regulation means that the council can say," We think that another regulation should be made on this particular point. "I can conceive of no subject within its powers on which the council cannot make representation within the rights which it has under this Amendment as all Scottish hygiene is covered by the provisions mentioned in subsection (4).

Suppose that something slips through the net. We have already given an undertaking—and I am sure that the hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison), who has been in my position for so long, will know that this is true—that when a council asks the Secretary of State for a remit—"Please may we examine this?"—the Secretary of State is always only too willing to grant that request. I assure the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) that this is not a narrow Amendment, but a very wide Amendment indeed.

Miss Herbison

The Joint Under-Secretary says that the Secretary of State, if this council or any other such body were to say, "Please remit something to us, we would like to study it," would be willing to do so. But the point made by my hon. Friends and myself was that the council did not want to be continually getting something from the Secretary of State. The council wished to be able to initiate examination of some particular problem.

There is another matter on which I think we should be clear, because there is a chance of our having something done about it in another place. It is this. The council can examine existing regulations and regulations that will be made, but these regulations, either existing or about to be made, may not cover everything that the council wishes to be covered. If there were a completely new subject which could not very well be fitted into an existing regulation or one about to be made, it seems to me that subsection (5) would not cover that contingency.

Mr. Browne

That was the point which I was making. We can see very few things that are likely to slip through the net of this subsection. If a regulation is insufficient, then the council can draw attention to the fact and either say, "We think that there ought to be a new regulation," or, "We think that the existing one needs tightening up." As the whole of Scottish food hygiene is covered by the provisions in this subsection (4), I can give the hon. Lady the assurance that we are of the opinion that this Amendment does, in effect, give the council full powers to consider anything within its scope in relation to food hygiene. We can think of no case where it would want to ask the Secretary of State for the right to initiate.

We are satisfied that this really meets the point and that there is no room for any other Amendment, nor indeed could we make the Clause any wider. I hope that I have satisfied hon. Members opposite. I am most anxious to do so, because this is one of the most important Clauses in the Bill. I do not agree with the suggestion made by the Opposition that this council is a creature of the Secretary of State. It will not be a passive but an active body, and we want to see it doing its work for Scotland as so many other councils are doing today.

Amendment agreed to.