HC Deb 14 January 1998 vol 304 cc351-66 3.32 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our plans for a Food Standards Agency. Copies of this statement and the White Paper will be available from the Vote Office when I sit down.

Public consultation on Professor Philip James's report on how such a body should operate demonstrated an overwhelming consensus about the need to reform the way in which food safety and standards are handled in government. There is widespread support for the principle of separating responsibility for promoting food safety from responsibility for sponsoring the food and farming industries.

The Government have drawn up detailed proposals for the Food Standards Agency in the light of the responses to Professor James's recommendations. Those recommendations provided an excellent foundation for the White Paper, and I pay tribute to Professor James for his work. I am delighted to be able to present our proposals to the House today, on behalf of all the United Kingdom agriculture and health Ministers, in a Government White Paper, "The Food Standards Agency: A Force for Change". I particularly appreciate the support given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health during the drafting of the White Paper, and that of our hon. Friends the Minister for Public Health and the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Thanks are also due to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who chaired the committee.

These proposals are genuinely radical and modernising. They are part of the wider process of reform which we are driving forward across the whole spectrum of government. They are very much in tune with our core objective of making government more open and accountable as the basis for public trust in public services and institutions.

Every family and individual in the land has a direct interest in food safety and food standards. It has long been clear that fundamental reform of the Government machinery for handling these issues is needed if public confidence is to be properly restored. We have quickly grasped this challenge. We have already made important changes to the way in which food safety and standards are tackled since we took office. We have ensured that my Department and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health work effectively as a team, together with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have significantly increased the amount and quality of information that we make public.

Our proposals for the Food Standards Agency highlight our plans to strengthen and make transparent the way in which government deals with these vital matters. They represent a radical approach in which the clear priority is to protect public health. The agency will be a powerful new body, able to publish its advice to Ministers, free of vested interests and able to act clearly and decisively at all stages of the food chain. It will be directed by a group of independent commissioners who will provide an authoritative and wide range of expertise. They will work together in the public interest to lead an agency which promotes the supply of food that meets the standards that consumers expect. It will ensure that people have the information that they need to make proper choices for themselves about the food they eat, for consumers will rightly always decide for themselves about their diet. The agency will aim to help people who want to be healthier to choose a suitable diet; it will not tell people what they must eat.

Every business, from the farm, the small shopkeeper to the largest supermarket, also has a direct interest in ensuring confidence in food. They will gain from an agency which, because it is able to deal effectively with genuine food safety problems to protect consumers, will also have the credibility to reassure consumers when that is necessary.

The agency's functions will include formulation of policy advice, preparation of draft legislation, negotiation in the European Union and other international bodies, research, surveillance, public information and the monitoring of food law enforcement. Its remit will extend across the whole food chain. Where it does not have full operational responsibility, in aspects of farming practices, it will have powers to intervene if it considers that the action taken by other bodies, including the Ministry of Agriculture, does not provide sufficient safeguards for the human food chain. The Meat Hygiene Service will report to the agency rather than to agriculture Ministers.

The agency will be able to draw on the expertise of the network of independent scientific advisory committees, including a new advisory committee on animal feeding stuffs—recommended as long ago as 1992—which will advise both the agency and agriculture Departments.

By eliminating the confusion and uncertainty that have for too long surrounded the arrangements for dealing with food safety and standards issues, the agency will be able to deliver real benefits to consumers, retailers and the food industry alike. In doing so, it will need to command the confidence of all those who have an interest in its work. The agency will achieve this by adopting the best available authoritative scientific advice, and by acting in a way that is open, consultative and transparent. It will ensure that the public have access to clear and consistent information about risk.

The guiding principles that will govern the agency's actions are set out in the White Paper. They will be enshrined in the legislation that brings it into being. They will provide the framework to ensure that the agency will act responsibly and proportionately in the public interest.

The Food Standards Agency will be fully accountable for its actions to the public and to Parliament. It will report to Parliament through health Ministers, but will also work closely with the other Departments of government, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which will retain responsibility for sponsorship of the food industry. The agency will routinely publish the basis for its advice. This will ensure that the public interest is clearly being served when policy decisions are taken and regulations proposed. The appropriate Select Committees of both Houses would, of course, be able to call the chair of the commission and the agency's chief executive to give evidence when appropriate.

The particular interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be fully covered. The Food Standards Agency will be responsible for advising the Government on the United Kingdom policy framework on food standards and safety matters. However, we recognise that issues of particular interest to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland arise. We therefore propose that new independent advisory committees will be formed in each of those countries to provide a focus for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests in food standards, and to advise the agency's commission and the respective Secretaries of State, or their successors from a devolved Parliament or Assembly. We will also establish Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish executives within the United Kingdom agency to take responsibility for the existing food safety and standards functions carried out by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices.

The agency will need to be properly resourced. The White Paper makes it clear that the Government intend to pursue new methods of raising some of the necessary expenditure from the food sector. We intend to consult closely all who would be affected, including, of course, the small business sector, in drawing up our detailed proposals.

The publication of the White Paper is the commencement of the next phase of public debate. Establishing an agency with such important, wide-ranging responsibilities is a complex process. We will again consult interested parties, across the whole food chain, to ensure that the Food Standards Agency will work effectively in practice and command respect from all those who have an interest in its work. The White Paper is being circulated widely for comment today. My right hon. Friends and I look forward to discussing the way forward with all stakeholders over the coming weeks.

The responses to the consultation will inform the drafting of the Bill to establish the agency. The draft Bill will be circulated for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament later this year. The Bill will be brought before Parliament as soon as the legislative programme permits. In the meantime, the Government are already putting into practice the principles by which the agency will operate. We will continue to ensure that the period of transition is managed successfully. We propose in particular to begin to put in place the agency's governing body on a shadow basis at an appropriate stage in the passage of the legislation through Parliament.

The White Paper contains a radical, coherent, responsible set of proposals for delivering one of our most important manifesto commitments. The Food Standards Agency will constitute a force that is dedicated to working systematically and constructively with all who are involved with the supply of food to the consumer to ensure better food safety standards. The time for change is long overdue. I commend our proposals to the House.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

May I first thank the Minister for his statement and for the fact that we were able to have adequate time to study it and to look at the White Paper? I am glad that his computers are fixed on this occasion.

We very much welcome any moves that will help our food to be even safer than it is now, and indeed to enhance consumer confidence in our already excellent food industry.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to widespread consultation on the policy, and thank him for providing the opportunity for pre-legislation scrutiny. That is right, when important and detailed matters such as this are being considered.

The Minister says that there has been a loss of confidence in British food. I wonder how he reacts to the statement made by Safeway, which referred, on the publication of Professor James' s report, to The vast majority of our 6 million weekly shoppers continuing to demonstrate confidence in us, providing volume growth and little alteration in their long term buying patterns". Perhaps the Minister could also comment on Safeway's view of the agency. It says that it does not believe that the Food Standards Agency, however structured, could have anticipated BSE or E. coli 0157, or that it will prevent issues of possibly similar severity in the future. It is important for the Minister to give us a view on those matters.

May I ask the Minister what criteria he will use to determine whether the Food Standards Agency is being successful? Does he intend to set a target for the reduction of reported incidents of food poisoning, or will he consider another target—possibly the elimination from the food chain of harmful pathogens such as salmonella or campylobacter? By what objective measures will he assess public confidence in Britain's food once the agency has started work? Professor James did not seem to think that much would happen. He said this morning on the radio: I think if in fact the food poisoning is levelling off' that would be an achievement. Professor James hoped that the rate might fall in three to five years. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what his ambitions for the agency are.

How will the agency determine its priorities? I know that it is to produce a corporate plan. Will that plan be the subject of ministerial decision making? If so, which Ministers will decide on the objectives and policies that the agency will pursue? How will the agency change its policies from time to time, in the light of changing situations? Can the Minister tell us whether the present budgets relating to food science, which will underpin much of the agency's work, will be sustained and developed further?

How will the Minister ensure that the agency continually recognises that people, as consumers, want to make their own choices on the safe food that they eat? What safeguards can he offer the House? Can he assure us that the agency's clear, objective agenda will not be hijacked by those who would be labelled food faddists, and who would want the agency to move into what has been described an extension of the nanny state? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with Marks and Spencer, which has said that well-being, in terms of the food that people eat, cannot be imposed on the customer?

A central part of the Minister's statement was his comment on the agency's funding. The White Paper talks of the agency's own new costs being £100 million, of which £35 million are covered by other charges; but what exactly are the new methods of raising money to which the Minister has referred? The White Paper speaks of some form of licensing or registration scheme. Will all food premises have to be licensed? If so, how will they qualify for the licence, and on what criteria might the licence be removed? I should like to know more about that from the Minister.

The White Paper also talks of the £120 million to £150 million that local authority enforcement costs. The implication of paragraph 8.19 is that in some way, by gradual attrition, the food industry—from the farm right through to the supermarket and the restaurant—will have to pick up the tab. May we know more precisely what proportion of the costs will be placed on industry, and when the process of costs passing back will stop?

Will the Minister confirm—as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has—that 44 per cent. of all reported food poisoning cases result from consumers buying meals from restaurants, hotels and other catering establishments? Does he agree that a key ingredient to achieving safer food is the proper enforcement of existing laws? The current law is unevenly enforced, so how will the agency tackle that problem? What consultations will he have with local authorities to find out how much extra money they will require to carry out their duties under the new agency?

Will the Minister give more detail of how the new agency will fulfil its legislative responsibilities? Will it have to put to Ministers all future proposals on new or revised food law? Will it be involved in environmental policy? There is concern about the disposal of bio-solids and the effect on the food chain. Will the new agency be involved in that?

Will the Minister tell the House a little more about the lines of accountability and the way in which the new agency will operate? He talked about openness, and we applaud that, but will he reassure us that the supply of information that is commercial in confidence currently given to his officials will not be cut off, as it enables them to be effective in European Union negotiations and in other areas in which the agency will operate? There is a worry that such openness may be against the interests of the dissemination of information.

In the world of food, many people give consumers alternative advice. Will the agency act as referee to give clear guidance when such information is made available? In his statement, the Minister referred to the agency's ability to interfere in farming practice if it considers that action taken by other bodies, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, does not provide sufficient safeguards for human health. Will he confirm that the agency will have the unique power to overrule him and his Department? If so, to whom will the agency be accountable for such actions? How would the agency have reacted if it had received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee the advice about beef on the bone? Would it have implemented the ban, or would it have followed the line taken in the Minister's statement and ensured that the public had the knowledge to make up their own minds?

The Opposition welcome the arrival of the Food Standards Agency. [Laughter.] It is interesting to note that, my having asked the Government searching and probing questions about a serious new agency, the best that we can get from them is guffaws of laughter. Do they take the matter seriously?

Dr. Cunningham

I welcome the comments at the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's statements, but the remarks that he made at the end rang a little hollow after his long litany of critical statements in between. He seems to be giving the Food Standards Agency a one-candlepower welcome. I can tell him that the agency is widely welcomed across the country by consumers, consumer organisations and major players in the industry.

The right hon. Gentleman began by saying that he believed that this is the right way forward, and clearly we share that view. He asked me some questions about the Safeway organisation. I shall tell the House what Safeway had to say following the publication of the report by Professor Philip James. It said that Safeway agrees with the principle of a Food Standards Agency …organisationally transparent, financially and politically independent and with 'plough to plate' scope. That is a pretty clear statement of support from Safeway for the Government's proposal.

The right hon. Gentleman then asked me whether the Food Standards Agency could have prevented or foreseen serious food problems, such as BSE or E. coli.

Mr. Jack

That is what Safeway asked.

Dr. Cunningham

Sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman put the question. It is difficult for any organisation, within or outside government, to foresee certain problems, but the agency might have been more guarded, more careful and more cautious in its approach to what was happening in the animal food chain than the Conservative Government ever were in the lead-up to the disastrous consequences that flowed from their failures, and from the widespread infection of the national herd with BSE.

The right hon. Member asked about criteria and targets for the Food Standards Agency. The White Paper proposes that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will give up all responsibility for these matters. The agency's responsibility will be to report in the first place to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and it will be for the Government and the agency in consultation, following what I hope will be a successful passage of the legislation, to decide whether targets—financial, operational or otherwise—should be established and on what basis. In response to the second part of what the right hon. Gentleman said on the matter, I do not anticipate that the Food Standards Agency will have the capability to eliminate coliforms, enteroviruses or pathogenic micro-organisms.

Mr. Jack

It will not tackle the problem.

Dr. Cunningham

The right hon. Gentleman says that it will not tackle the problem, but of course it will tackle the problems of food standards and food hygiene, which is what it is being established to do. We have to rest on advances in medical science to deal with some of the other problems. Even so, we know that some organisms are almost impossibly difficult to eliminate or destroy.

The right hon. Gentleman asked how we could guarantee that the agency's agenda would not be hijacked by people on one side of the argument. The important matter is that the Food Standards Agency has to be so robustly independent and so well managed that its agenda cannot be hijacked by anyone, including the food industry or people who take the extreme view against which the right hon. Gentleman rightly cautions. I agree on that: we want the agency to be tough and independent, and it will be on a statutory basis. I cannot believe that the serious and experienced people whom we intend to form the commission and the executive of the agency will allow their agenda to be hijacked by anyone. That would totally destroy the agency's independence and credibility, and we shall ensure that that does not happen.

In another question, the right hon. Gentleman spoke about the views of Marks and Spencer. I shall tell him and the House what Marks and Spencer said in its response to the consultation on the report of Professor Philip James. It stated that Marks and Spencer supports the creation of an independent Food Standards Agency to help maintain public confidence in the safety of British food. That is another clear statement of support in principle for the Government's proposal.

The right hon. Gentleman asked an important question about funding. We have deliberately made it clear to everyone involved that funding proposals are to be the subject of further discussion and debate. It will be possible for hon. Members, those in the food industry, and all who are involved in the food chain to comment on funding. The White Paper gives a couple of illustrative examples of what might happen under a licensing system, for example. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that all these establishments are already licensed and on the record, and there is no necessity for any huge new bureaucracy in that regard.

The Food Standards Agency will clearly have a role in the enforcement of EU as well as UK legislation. It is difficult to take seriously the right hon. Gentleman's question on that point because it comes from a member of a Government who signally failed again and again to take effective, proper action fully to implement our obligations under EU and UK law. I have dealt with the main points that were raised by the right hon. Gentleman in his questions.

Mr. Jack


Dr. Cunningham

I have made it clear in the statement and in my response to the right hon. Gentleman that the agency will be accountable to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, to Parliament and to Select Committees. It will be able to give unbiased advice, free from any vested interests. In turn, it will be able to take its advice from the expert scientific committees that currently advise me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

I am sure that the whole country will welcome my statement, will want to discuss the White Paper and will want the Government to move forward as quickly as possible to bring an independent Food Standards Agency into being.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I know that my right hon. Friend's statement and the White Paper will be warmly welcomed in my constituency, where people are concerned about standards in food safety. Will there be research funding for the agency to carry out its own research? If so, how will it relate to the research programmes already undertaken by my right hon. Friend's Department and the Department of Health?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. Existing scientific and advisory agencies and research programmes will be available to guide the thinking of the Food Standards Agency, but it will also have, in its own right, the power to commission an independent research programme outside of existing Government agencies, in the private sector. Of course, if it wishes, it can continue to make use of existing Government agencies. It will be the agency's decision.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I warmly welcome the Minister's statement and the White Paper. We have long campaigned for an independent Food Standards Agency, and many of the proposals in both the statement and the White Paper meet our requirements.

I have some specific concerns, but, before expressing them, I want also to welcome the Government's decision to make the matter the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny in the House. I am sure that that will be warmly welcomed by all hon. Members from all parties, including Back Benchers. It is important that the emphasis that the Minister has placed on credibility, transparency and accountability receives a positive response from hon. Members—we must all endorse it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the core issue is reliability? Over recent years, there has been no lack of reliable, safe, good quality food—but there has been a lack of good, reliable, safe standards of advice on that food. Does the Minister recall that his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), admitted to me from the Dispatch Box that three quarters of the public did not believe what he said about food safety? His advisers were no better received by the general public. Therefore, we must be sure that the new mechanism that the Minister is putting into place will carry credibility with the general public and the consumer in a way that was patently not the case under his predecessor.

That brings me to my core concern. I accept that it is early days, and obviously we will study the White Paper with interest, but there will be some confusion in the House and in the country about precisely what accountability means. The Minister made the statement, but the Secretary of State for Health will be accountable for the agency. The simple way to square the circle would be to establish a separate Select Committee on food standards. That would bring together the interests of health, agriculture and consumer protection throughout the country.

Another issue of concern both inside and outside the House is cost. It is right that the Minister should examine the issue, and I am grateful to him for what he said. I and, I am sure, other hon. Members will not take with more than a pinch of salt the squeals of dismay from a very, very rich industry. The food processing and retailing industry made huge profits during the recession. Indeed, some of the supermarkets have made huge profits out of farmers during the BSE crisis. The industry will be asked to contribute a comparatively small sum towards restoring confidence in its products. If there was already confidence in its products, we would not need the agency. The agency is being established to ensure that there is real confidence in future. If the main cost of the new agency falls entirely on the industry, however, there is a danger that it will be suspected of being in the pocket of its paymasters. Therefore, it is important that the public purse—the taxpayer—also makes a contribution.

With those concerns, but with a general welcome, I hope that the Minister will have the support of most hon. Members in the consultation process.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generous support for both the statement and the White Paper. As he said, the matters of reliability, sound advice and public confidence are inextricably linked. The food industry, and particularly the beef industry, has suffered so many of its problems precisely because public confidence in government and in advice from government fell to such a low ebb, and the strong case for an independent Food Standards Agency became unassailable for exactly those reasons. We must have clear, coherent and independent advice from an organisation that is staffed by people in whom the general public will have confidence, knowing that they are independent administrators and independent of the industry.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there will be some confusion. One of the reasons for mistrust is that, historically, the Ministry of Agriculture has been responsible not only for the promotion and production of food but for the promotion of food standards and of food safety. Those responsibilities have all been held by one Ministry, although they occasionally conflict. That is the overwhelming case for the separation of responsibilities.

After separating responsibilities, it would be rather perverse to say that the Food Standards Agency should report to the Minister of Agriculture. The agency should report to the Secretary of State for Health, and that is what it will do. There is no need for anyone to be confused about the reasons for the separation of powers and responsibilities or about how accountability will work.

I should tell the hon. Gentleman that it is not for me to decide whether the House has a Select Committee on food safety matters. In general and in principle, I am a supporter of Select Committees in the House, but I cannot make such a commitment.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman dealt with the very important matter of costs. The White Paper gives an example of 600,000—in round terms—establishments being affected by the agency. I should apologise to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) for saying that they are already licensed. They are registered, not licensed. I apologise for that slip of the tongue.

The illustrative example in the White Paper states that if the cost of a licence were £100 per annum, the net income would be £60 million. Therefore, even if we were to use that approach—there is no commitment to do so yet—such relatively small charges will not overburden an industry that, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, is profitable and able to compete vigorously and successfully, not only in domestic but in international markets. That was only one example. The Government have an open mind on the matter, and we will consult widely on it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it comes easy to me to be able to support this clear-cut manifesto commitment, unlike some of the others that we have been hearing about lately, in the knowledge that the agency will provide a very big counterweight to the large vested interests in the food-producing industries? But will he take on board one problem? He says that the body will be independent of Ministers and of the food industries. If the agency is not truly independent of those wild-eyed people in the Common Market who make all those tin-pot proposals month after month, and if people in the agency find themselves tarred with that brush, the instincts of the British people will turn against it. I tell my right hon. Friend to have a word with those in the agency and those who are in the environmental health industries in local authorities, and to tell them that, if they are truly independent, they will have enough initiative to find out what has to be done without going over there to find the answers.

Dr. Cunningham

It is not always the case that my hon. Friend and I agree on policy issues, as he made clear, but I am always happier when we do, so I work hard to maximise the opportunities for that. I am grateful to him for his comments. He is right to highlight the crucial importance of securing and maintaining complete independence for the agency. Food law and standards are increasingly international. If our industries want to continue to export successfully, they have to meet not just United Kingdom standards, but international standards, so, whether we like it or not, there will always be a role for the European Union in these matters. My hon. Friend described some people in Brussels in a rather colourful way. I am delighted to tell him that the Commission has just approved the export certified herd scheme for British beef from Northern Ireland.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. It seems that I need to remind the House that statements are an extension of Question Time and are not a time for Back Benchers to make long comments. We have had only four questions in three quarters of an hour. We cannot proceed in that way. I now ask for brisk questions, and brisk answers from the Minister.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I first say to the right hon. Gentleman that I welcome the fact that he will be publishing a Bill for pre-legislative discussion? That is a desirable step.

I understand that the agency will be a free-standing executive agency with the right—indeed, the duty—to set standards as to composition, sale, manufacture, and so on. Clearly, there will be legal requirements on producers, and, no doubt, legal offences will be created. Can he tell the House the extent of the control that the House will be able to exercise over the setting of those legal obligations and the creation of those offences? If the agency is to be truly independent, it is difficult to see what the line of accountability can be.

On a further point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), given that there is a single market within the European Union in food and foodstuffs, what is the relationship between the standards being set by the agency and such standards as may be set by counterpart institutions in other member states and by the European Union itself?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. We shall certainly publish the draft legislation for consultation. He is right that it will be a free-standing, independent agency, but when it proposes changes in food standards or food hygiene there will have to be legislation. The agency will not have the power simply to change things. Change will have to be based on legislation which will have to pass through the House. The principal aim and objective of the agency will be to focus on food standards and food hygiene, as we made clear at the beginning of the White Paper. That will be its role. Where it believes that circumstances are not adequate, it will be able to recommend that the law is changed, but it will not be able to change the law without the proper legislative process in the House.

That also applies to the final important question that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised in respect of the European Union. As he knows, because he has held the job that I now have the privilege of holding, we work increasingly to harmonise law on these matters exactly because our food industries, like those in other countries, have to compete and survive in a global marketplace, and we want the same standards to apply on a level playing field.

Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)

Will the agency ensure that adequate standards are applied to the production of animal feedstuffs so that another disaster such as BSE cannot happen, particularly in the light of Professor James's key recommendations that the agency's remit should apply to the entire food chain?

Dr. Cunningham

My hon. Friend has asked an important question, the answer to which is yes it will. As I said in the statement, the Government propose to accept the recommendations of Professor Lamming, who, in a report to the previous Administration, suggested that there should be an advisory committee on animal feedstuffs. It is to the shame of the previous Administration, given the circumstances that prevailed, and what we now know, that the Conservative Government refused to act on that recommendation of the Lamming report. We shall do so.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

May I ask the Minister to give a little more detail about the negotiations with Europe? When a matter related to food is discussed—usually subject, as he will know, to qualified majority voting—a great deal of negotiation takes place and there is inevitably give and take. Will there be a secretariat in Brussels associated with the Food Standards Agency? How will it work in practice in terms of advice that the agency gives to Ministers at the negotiation stage before they vote?

Dr. Cunningham

That is an important question. The Food Standards Agency will work in exactly the same way as the Health and Safety Executive advises Ministers now, and has done for some time in respect of EU legislation. It will present the case, and perhaps negotiate in detail in some of the working committees, but the final decisions, as always, will rest with Ministers.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

As the Member of Parliament for Motherwell and Wishaw, the constituency at the centre of last year's E. coli outbreak, I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Many of my close friends were hospitalised and some of the people in my own street tragically lost their lives. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand when I ask for an assurance that the No. 1 priority of the agency will be public health and the consumers at the end of the line, not food retailers or producers.

Dr. Cunningham

I can give my hon. Friend the important assurance that he seeks on behalf of his constituents. It is the first guiding principle set out in the White Paper that public health should be the first priority of a Food Standards Agency. In addition, I can tell my hon. Friend that on coming to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I put the health and well-being of people and the environment at the top of its agenda. We shall have powerful new forces within the Government and in the agency and, needless to say, in the Department of Health, putting the health and well-being of the people of this country at the top of the nation's agenda.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Food standards in this country are exceptionally high. The Government propose that they should be higher still by the establishment of this agency, which will be extremely costly. The costs will be borne eventually by the consumer. What guarantees can the Minister give to the consumers that food imported into the United Kingdom will be of the same very high standard?

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Lady is right; we have pretty high standards of food hygiene in this country. Let me pay tribute to our leading food manufacturers and food industries, which are able to compete successfully globally because they set excellent standards. However, like most industries, the industry has a very long and poorly performing tail which does not meet the high standards of the best in the sector.

The hon. Lady said that the agency would be costly. Let me say that the consequences of BSE, E. coli outbreaks and salmonella poisoning are colossal when compared with the likely realistic cost of such an agency. That is just the financial consequences. In terms of the health of the people and the deaths that have resulted from the problems, the cost to the people affected is immeasurable.

The people of this country are going to get a bargain out of the Food Standards Agency which will be of great value to them in terms of the quality and safety of the food that they eat and in terms of their health and well-being. Let me say again that we are working in the European Union wherever possible to ensure a level playing field for our farmers and our food industry. That is why I remind the hon. Lady and the House that from 1 January this year no beef can come into this country unless it has been subject to the same rigorous safeguards as beef produced in Britain.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

May I say how much I welcome the consultation paper and in particular the fact that it takes on board the wider brief of nutrition and not just food safety? Can my right hon. Friend offer some more assurances about the effectiveness of the powers of the agency and the way in which it will carry out its powers of enforcement? What type of consumer liaison will be conducted so that people can be sure that we will see improvements in health standards, and consumer confidence is retained in that extremely important agency so that it is a real consumers' champion?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome supportive comments.

As set out in the White Paper, there is a division of responsibility between the Food Standards Agency and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. It would be absurd if my right hon. Friend did not have some responsibility for matters of nutrition and diet, given their important role in so many of the worst illnesses with which he and his colleagues must grapple—for example, cardiovascular disease and others. That division of responsibility is clearly set out in the White Paper and I have no doubt, because nutrition is one of controversial issues, that there will be some warm, if not heated, public debate about it.

As for the second important question my hon. Friend raised about liaison, of course an agency of this kind will have permanent lines of communication open not just to the Secretary of State for Health and, where necessary, other Government Departments, but to local authorities, because of their important role in such matters. Last, but by no means least, it will have such lines of communication with consumers, consumer organisations and their representatives.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

The Minister said in his statement that the Government are keen to put into practice the principles governing the agency. They include giving the consumer the right information with which to make proper choices. In the light of that principle, will the Minister reconsider his decision to ban beef on the bone?

Dr. Cunningham

No. I remind the hon. Lady and the House that, as yet, we and our scientists still have no idea of the incubation period of CJD. The hon. Lady should bear that in mind when she thinks about the actions that I take in respect of safeguarding public health in that matter. The principle according to which I acted in that regard was exactly the same as that followed by the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), when she held my office. She made an almost identical statement about the existence of a very small risk, but nevertheless added that particular part of the animal's anatomy to the list of specified risk materials.

I am not so sure that we would have got the decision that was reached in Brussels today if I had not taken that action.

Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, NorthWest)

I, too, welcome the Minister's statement and the proposals set out in it, as they have clearly been influenced by the excellent James report. What proposals does he envisage will be necessary to establish more consistent standards governing the enforcement of food hygiene regulations by trading standards officers and the environmental health officers of local authorities?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The agency will monitor and establish common standards that, of course, in a number of respects local authority officers will have to enforce. As I have made clear already in answer to questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, local authority officers will continue to have a very important role in ensuring that those standards are implemented and that the public are properly safeguarded. That is an essential part of the approach of the Food Standards Agency.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Who will be responsible for licensing genetically modified products and when will the Ministry reach a determination on the licence applications currently before it?

Dr. Cunningham

The overall authority for the licensing of novel foods will now pass to the Food Standards Agency, but the general processes will be exactly the same as they are now.

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the credibility of the agency will depend entirely on the quality and independence of the scientific research that guides it? Can he confirm that, as I think he said in his statement, the agency will be entirely free to commission its research where it thinks fit in the interests of proper science? What ministerial guidelines, if any, will the agency have in respect of those issues of commissioning research?

Dr. Cunningham

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the whole success of any agency of this sort would be completely undermined if it did not, from the outset, establish and sustain credibility about its independence. As for his specific question about research, I repeat that the agency will have the absolute right to decide where and on what terms it commissions its future scientific research programme. It will, of course, have available to it existing Government agencies, but, equally, it will have available to it options in the private sector; there will be no ministerial interference in the making of that sort of decision by the agency.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

The report seems to suggest that devolved Parliaments and Assemblies will be subject to a requirement to consult the agency. Surely a requirement for any devolved Parliament or Assembly to consult with an agency creates a dangerous precedent and strikes at the independence of that Parliament or Assembly.

Dr. Cunningham

I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads the proposals in the White Paper, his concern will be assuaged. He will see that we carefully made separate arrangements under a UK umbrella body for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and we have anticipated, as far as we are able to, the possible changes that will occur following devolution to Scotland and Wales. In view of all he has said in the Chamber and elsewhere in the past, I am rather sorry that hon. Gentleman did not say a word of thanks about the decision on beef in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

In congratulating my right hon. Friend and our admirable and joint hon. Friend the Minister of State on the step toward a Food Standards Agency, may I say that it will be especially welcomed by environmental health officers in the city of Birmingham and elsewhere, as it will underpin the important work that they do on behalf of the public to enforce proper standards of food safety? In that context, may I urge my right hon. Friend to base the agency in the city of Birmingham?

Dr. Cunningham

That was the first of many bids, no doubt; but, as we have already made clear, the agency will be based in London. We think that that is the right decision, although I recognise the outstanding merits of Birmingham and my hon. Friend's ceaseless advocacy of them. I repeat that environmental health officers are an important part of the process. I have no doubt that they will want to give us their views on the White Paper officially, but I shall make it clear to them that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will be happy to meet them for informal discussions about the way forward.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

In answer to an earlier question and in his statement, the Minister indicated that the agency would have responsibility in respect of nutrition, and he welcomes that inclusion. However, if we walk into any newsagent in this country, we find shelves laden with magazines that are full of good nutritional ideas; we can turn on daytime television and watch all sorts of programmes about good nutrition and cooking; and the largest-selling sector of the book market at Christmas time is cookery books, followed by gardening books telling us how to grow decent vegetables. Will the Minister tell us what else he thinks the agency will bring to the table in the field of nutrition?

Dr. Cunningham

As in other areas of its responsibility, the agency will bring independent advice—advice that is free of any commercial interest—and give that advice in a clear and consistent way which the public will be able to understand.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Against the background of the first E. coli 0157 outbreak at Redhouse dairy in my constituency and the anecdotal evidence given me on 6 January by the West Lothian and Midlothian farmers union, is there a policy on the increasing spreading of raw sludge, with all the phosphate and other consequences that there might be for disease? Will either the agency or the Department be able to do something about what may be an increasing practice and is certainly a potentially dangerous one?

Dr. Cunningham

We are aware of the concern in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere; the issue is being pursued jointly with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We recognise that there are important public health issues involved. Guidelines already exist and we are awaiting further expert advice that will be acted on as necessary to protect the public and, once again, put the public interest first.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Thank you. I am closing the questions on the statement now.