HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc440-2
2. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

If he will make a statement on the procedures for the (a) accountability to Parliament of the Food Standards Agency and (b) authorisation of its funding. [39108]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

The Food Standards Agency will be accountable to the House through Health Ministers, and will be required to lay its annual report and accounts before Parliament. Its chief executive will be the accounting officer, who may be called before the Public Accounts Committee.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

May I preface my question by thanking the Minister for ringing me this morning to apologise for answering one of my written questions about the agency late? Does he agree that the paramount duty of the Food Standards Agency will be to reassure the British public that British food is among the safest in the world, if not the safest in the world? is it not, therefore, important to get the structure right from its inception? As I understand it, the agency's remit will include both enforcement and policy making with respect to the safety of British food. That could become oppressive in the absence of proper democratic accountability.

Will the Minister consider setting up a separate part of the organisation to deal with enforcement, possibly along the lines of an enlarged Meat Hygiene Service? There could then be a separate policy-making section as well. As the agency will primarily be responsible for food safety, does the Minister agree that its funding should come mainly from the public purse?

Mr. Rooker

On the latter point, we said in the White Paper that we would issue a separate consultation document on funding. I intend to issue the consultation paper at about the same time as we publish a draft Bill, which I hope will be well before the summer recess.

The hon. Gentleman's first point was covered in many of the consultation responses—well over 1,100 of them—that we have received. His points are valid; we shall debate them in the House, in the Select Committee and in the Standing Committee. Ultimately, the House must be in control. The legislation, approved by the House, will set out the guiding principles to which the agency will work; it will not be able to create its own agenda.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

My hon. Friend has suggested when the draft Bill may be published. Will he assure the House that there will be adequate time for the Select Committee and others fully to discuss the proposals?

As there have been some criticisms in respect of the funding arrangements, can the Minister assure us that there will also be adequate time for people to express their feelings about the part of the Bill dealing with funding?

Mr. Rooker

The answer to both questions is yes. There will be adequate time to debate this important policy initiative. We must get it right from day one. Given the problems that this country has experienced in the past with food safety policy and enforcement, we cannot afford to get it wrong this time: too many people are watching what we are doing.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We welcome the Minister's assurances, but does he recognise that there is a major transitional problem? There is continuing controversy over issues such as antibiotics in food and beef on the bone, and Ministers and their advisers still do not enjoy the public confidence that they should, largely as a result of their predecessors' behaviour. Would it not be possible to set up the agency now on a non-statutory, advisory basis? That might at least give it the credibility of some independence from Ministers.

Mr. Rooker

That is not the right way to go. I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman says about a lack of confidence. However, in the past 12 months, we have made decisions and issued announcements to the effect that, from now on, brand names will be used in the results of surveys on pesticides residues and veterinary medicines residues. We are also publishing brand names for the results of the programme of chemical surveillance of food contaminants; and we are publishing every month the hygiene assessment scores of every red and white meat abattoir in the country. In short, we are becoming much more open and transparent about food policy than Governments have ever been. We hope that that will help to restore confidence.