HC Deb 22 April 1999 vol 329 cc1037-40
8. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

When the Government intend to respond to the report of the Food Standards Committee. [80349]

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

We are considering the Committee's report on the Food Standards Agency Bill and we will respond to it, in line with its request, before Second Reading—of course, I am not in a position to say on what date that will be.

Mr. Chope

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Will he join me in congratulating the Committee on having uncovered the fact that the levy will rise from £90 to £600 after three years? Does he accept the unanimous verdict of the Committee that the flat-rate levy is contrary to natural justice?

What will the Minister do to counter the lack of proportionality? The four major supermarkets, which have a joint turnover of £40 billion a year, will pay £1 million in levy while all the other retailers, bed-and-breakfasts, corner shops, voluntary organisations, schools and charities will pay £300 million. Is not that unfair?

Mr. Rooker

On behalf of the Government, I am prepared to congratulate the Committee on producing a first-class report in a very short time. We find it of great assistance as part of the third stage of consultation on the Food Standards Agency.

The idea that the Committee uncovered anything is nonsense. The Committee asked me whether, if the Government collected all the costs of safeguarding food safety and food standards from the industry—and we have no intention of doing so—the levy would be not £90, but £600. The honest answer is yes, but as we propose to collect only £90, the taxpayer will pay the other £510 towards food safety surveillance and work. The idea that the industry is being asked to pay the majority of the cost is absolute nonsense.

We are consulting on the charge separately to the consultations on the draft Bill. We are actively looking at the alternatives that were put to us both before the consultation started and during the consultation. We have taken on board the views of the Select Committee on Agriculture. I cannot be more sincere than that. We seek an accommodation and a method of charging that is seen to be fair and acceptable to the industry and to the wider public.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Obviously the final part of the Minister's answer is welcome. I hope that all hon. Members will recognise that the Government are moving in response to what the Food Standards Committee has said, but may I ask the Minister to go a step further? Does he accept the major argument of the Committee that a flat-rate levy—a food poll tax just like the poll tax introduced by the Conservative party—is inappropriate, unfair and against natural justice?

Is the Minister prepared to say that that applies also to the proposed Meat Hygiene Service charges, which were also initially introduced by the previous Government? Again, it seems that a flat-rate levy is to be imposed, rather than one that relates to headage.

Mr. Rooker

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Meat Hygiene Service. There is no comparison between the charging system for the Meat Hygiene Service and the proposed levy for the Food Standards Agency.

As I said to the Select Committee when I appeared before it over five hours, some new money must be raised, otherwise there will be no Food Standards Agency. The question is how we collect that extra money—it is currently estimated that the total required will be less than £50 million at £41 million—as cheaply and as practically as possible without creating an army of bureaucrats. The intention, as expressed in a separate consultation paper, is to use that money fairly for food safety.

I have made it clear to the Select Committee and to anyone who has asked outside that we are considering the alternatives and, as I have said, the Government considered such alternatives before we published our paper. I even offered my own alternatives. There is no magic solution to the issue. We have to find one that is fair and perceived to be fair and acceptable to the industry and to the wider public. We do not want to spoil what will be one of the Government's most popular policies for a ha'p'orth of tar on the Food Standards Agency's charging system.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the universal praise for the Government's decision to use the pre-legislative inquiry process on the FSA? As someone who is heavily involved in the other pre-legislative inquiry into the other FSA—the Financial Services Authority—may I say that such an approach to legislation, with high-level consultation and scrutiny of a Bill before it is considered in Standing Committee, is universally admired. It is the way in which legislation should be introduced. Such an approach will also ensure that the respective legislation receives much broader support across the food and financial services industries. Is it not the fact that, for years, the previous Government imposed bad legislation on us and that, now that we have introduced this new procedure, the Conservatives do not like it?

Mr. Rooker

In my 25 years' experience in the House, any fair assessment of the quality of our past legislative output—using industry's techniques to measure quality of output and performance—would classify it as abysmal. We are trying to modernise the processes of creating laws, to ensure quality for the British people. A draft Bill, with draft notes on clauses, was considered not only by a special Select Committee but subject to regional consultation. That was the third stage of consultation on that Bill—publication of the James report was the first stage, and the White Paper was the second. We have also received more than 1,000 submissions on the Bill.

It would be preposterous to say that, having gone through that process, the Food Standards Agency will be a surprise to anyone in the United Kingdom. We intend to produce a quality organisation, to provide a quality service to the British people.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Does the Minister understand that if he is not able to announce before the Bill's Second Reading the scrapping of that monstrous flat-rate charge and explain what will replace it, the Government's consultation exercise will be exposed as a farce? That charge will inflict a massive blow on thousands of small businesses, and irreparable damage will be done to many rural communities, where the village shop is an absolute cornerstone of life.

Mr. Rooker

I realise that the idea of charging registered food premises the sum of £ 1.73 a week is very onerous to many such businesses—[Interruption.] I am making a statement; perhaps, when I spell out the charge—£1.73 a week—it does not have the right ring about it. Nevertheless, as I have said more than once, we intend to make our proposals and to reply to the Food Standards Committee before the Bill's Second Reading.

9. Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

If he will make a statement on progress with the establishment of a Food Standards Agency. [80351]

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

I obviously cannot be precise on the matter. However, we have received a large response to the public consultation, and shall introduce the Bill in this Session if time is available. Everyone understands the position that the Government are in, as we have made it absolutely clear. One of the reasons why we had a short consultation period, and why the special Select Committee had a short time to consider the Food Standards Agency Bill, is that—depending on progress in reform of the other place—we shall seek an early legislative slot, before the end of this Session, for the Bill's Second Reading and Royal Assent.

Mr. Gapes

I welcome that answer, and tell my hon. Friend that many hon. Members are delighted at the way in which, in less than two years, the Government—the Ministry and the Department of Health—have worked to restore public confidence in food in the United Kingdom. However, may I ask him please to talk to his colleagues in Government, to ensure that the Bill is introduced as soon as possible so that that process may continue?

Mr. Rooker

Yes. We have talked to colleagues in Government throughout the process, but, as I said in my initial answer, colleagues in the other place who are not part of the Government have the matter in their hands. We are dependent largely on the time that the other place takes to decide on its own reform. Nevertheless, as we have made it abundantly clear, progress on the matter is not being hindered because we lack a Bill. Since September 1997, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food no longer has total control over United Kingdom food standards and safety. The setting up of the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group was important, as it provided a unified management structure across two Departments—the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As time goes on, we will build on that development. The premises that the group will move into—as we announced in March— are being converted, so the practicalities of the work will progress.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does the Minister understand that he would make rapid and consensual progress with the establishment of the Food Standards Agency if he abandoned his plans for the poll tax on food, to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has referred? I can take the Minister to village shops in my constituency which have already taken the decision to stop selling food. They make little money on it, and they fear a hike in charges. Does he understand the fear of farmers in my constituency who, perhaps, run bed-and-breakfasts, and farm food shops and attend farmers' markets, and who thus may be eligible not once, but three times for that charge? Does he understand that the progress of the Bill and the agency would be smoother if he abandoned the charging proposal?

Mr. Rooker

I understand the hon. Gentlemen's points, and it would be quite ludicrous if market traders were charged more than one sum for visiting different markets. I openly accept that such issues have been raised during the consultation. Without the required extra money, there will be no Food Standards Agency. We still have to find a way of raising the sufficient sum, which will, as I have said, at maximum, be £50 million—our current estimate is about £41 million. I understand that progress on reaching a decision could be considerably improved, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), we will make our decisions known—particularly our views on the recommendations of the special Select Committee—before Second Reading so that the House is fully aware of the proposals.