HC Deb 17 December 1997 vol 303 cc311-2
1. Mr. Fabricant

What representations he has received on his proposals for a food standards agency. [19600]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark)

As chairman of the relevant ministerial committee, I have received representations from a wide range of bodies, from consumer organisations to food manufacturers. There is clear agreement on the need for reform and strong support for the establishment of a food standards agency.

Mr. Fabricant

Following the debacle over the beef-on-the-bone crisis, in which confusion has been piled on confusion, and given that the Government have been unable to enforce the ban, what difference will a food standards agency make?

Dr. Clark

It ill becomes of member of the Conservative party, which presided over food scare after food scare, including salmonella, BSE and E. coli, to lecture the House on the work of a food standards agency. If we had had such an agency, the loss of confidence that the British people have experienced in our very fine food industry might well have been averted.

Mr. Barnes

Was not the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food considered under the previous Government to be in hock to the producers at the expense of consumer interests? Is not the food standards agency an arrangement whereby the rights of consumers can be fully considered? What is the likely relationship between my right hon. Friend's Department and MAFF? Will there be a division of authority, or will there be co-ordination?

Dr. Clark

When the food standards agency is established, through the House, we will transfer ministerial responsibility for it from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Department of Health, but we envisage the agency as an autonomous body, able to get the very best scientific advice and to act in a completely independent manner to try to restore public confidence in the quality of the food that the British people eat.

Mr. Tyler

Has the Minister seen the series of important articles in The Guardian over recent days, about the food revolution, and specifically about genetically modified foodstuffs and organisms? Can he give me a double assurance: first, that the new food standards agency will have as part of its remit consideration of those extremely important issues, as all hon. Members, and the public generally, are concerned about the extent to which we have mechanisms to ensure the long-term safety of such genetic engineering; and, secondly, that before we get the new agency someone in Government will take an holistic view of the problems, and will take a responsible attitude and be accountable to the House?

Dr. Clark

I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance on both questions. The committee that I chair realised that it would be some time before we had a food standards agency in place and we were determined to ensure in the interim that we had a sensible arrangement to try to deal with food issues. We have brought together under one chain of command the food scientists and the food experts from the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, so an holistic view is, indeed, being taken on such issues. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that issues such as novel foods will fall within the remit of the food standards agency.

Mr. Hanson

Does the Minister agree that had we had a food standards agency, the BSE problem would not have arisen in the way that it did? Does my right hon. Friend agree that a public inquiry into the BSE crisis would be helpful under the forthcoming freedom of information Act?

Dr. Clark

I believe that if we had had a freedom of information Act, the House and other experts might have been able to have access to information that might have allowed us to avert the terrible BSE disaster. I hope that, in the near future, we will be in a position to announce an inquiry into the BSE affair.

Mr. Maclennan

Is it the right hon. Gentleman's intention that the food standards agency should take the sort of decisions that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food took in banning beef on the bone, or would it be an advisory body, leaving the public to form their own conclusions about the facts put before them?

Dr. Clark

Ministers have to follow the best scientific advice they are given. Their first priority is the protection of the consumer. The food standards agency would be an independent body. It would have access to the finest scientific and other advice. It would make recommendations to the House because, clearly, only the House has the power to legislate should that be needed. It would be a brave Minister who went against the advice of such an august body.