§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Before I call the Minister, I should remind the House that Madam Speaker has placed a limit of 15 minutes on all Back-Bench speeches for the entire debate.
§ 5 pm
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Today's Second Reading debate takes forward a significant public protection measure; this Bill provides a new framework for food safety and food standards. It is based on openness, transparency and best science. It requires the Food Standards Agency to act proportionately—to consider the nature and costs of risks, and the cost and benefit of its risk management. The Bill addresses public concerns; it puts the interests of consumers first. It is intended to protect the public and, more than that, to underpin public confidence.
The proposals in the Bill must have been subject to some of the most intensive consultation of any measure to reach this House. The Bill was a commitment in the Labour party's 1997 manifesto. Immediately after the election, we published Professor James's report with the initial proposals for the agency. We pressed on with the White Paper and earlier this year, published a draft Bill for consultation.
As well as consulting on the draft Bill, the House agreed to set up a Special Select Committee to scrutinise the Bill. I am grateful to the Committee for its work, which has helped to inform the final shape of the Bill. Alongside all that, ministerial colleagues—I pay particular tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Minister of State—and I have held a series of meetings on the proposals with interested parties, as well as public meetings.
At every stage of consultation, the proposals for the agency have received resounding support. What criticism there has been was directed at the proposal for a levy to fund the agency's additional work. There were objections to the flat-rate levy proposal and, more significantly, to the proposal for the rate of the levy to increase over time. The Government have taken the consultation on all that very seriously and have decided, as the House will know, not to proceed with the levy proposal.
§ Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)
The Government's concession is much appreciated. The Farmers Union of Wales, for example, has taken it as an indication of the Government's willingness to listen to such concerns. Does the Minister recognise that the same principle might apply to the Meat Hygiene Service? Huge costs and regulation are weighing down producers and abattoirs. Will the Minister undertake to consider that issue very seriously?
§ Mr. Brown
The Government listened on the levy, and we are not only listening very carefully on the matter of costs that fall on the abattoir industry. A current review 787 has already resulted in the Government absorbing for a further year specified risk material charges, which are the largest single element of new charges that were under consideration for this year. The matter is still under consideration; the Government are listening. Nevertheless, there is a clear and discernable trend in the industry towards larger plants, and fewer of them. The hon. Gentleman asked me not to exacerbate that trend by the imposition of charges, which is a perfectly fair point and well made.
For the avoidance of doubt, I should make it clear that the Bill facilitates the agency's undertaking of work, along with the Department of Health, in the area of nutrition. That means that, among other things, the agency will be able to work with health education and promotion bodies in disseminating information to the public. Before dealing with the agency's other functions, I shall deal with appointments.
In response to the Select Committee, the Government promised that we would say something about the procedures that we were adopting for the appointment of the chairman, deputy chairman and members of the agency. The power to make such appointments is set out in clause 2. Appointments will be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and his opposite numbers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The agency will report to Parliament through Health Ministers. Appointments will be carried out under Nolan rules. The procedure will be absolutely fair and open. Alongside that, it will be subject to independent scrutiny.
All posts will be advertised in the national press and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in specialist ethnic minority publications. The only way for anyone to be considered will be to complete an application form. The process of advertising will begin in a few days' time, following the decision of the House on Second Reading.
The members of the agency will collectively provide a reasonable balance of relevant skills and experience. I anticipate that the majority will come from a wider public interest background, without specific affiliation. However, that does not mean that an involvement with a food or agriculture-related business will automatically exclude someone from consideration. All applicants will have to declare all personal interests or connections, and the appointment panels will be charged with probing potential conflicts of interest very carefully. I must make it clear that there are no specific interests—commercial or public—which would automatically exclude any candidate.
The agency's functions lie at the core of the Bill. The Food Standards Agency is being established as the principal authority in Government on food safety and standards matters. It will be the chief source of policy advice to Ministers and other public authorities. Its functions will include drafting and making recommendations on legislation, negotiating in the European Union and internationally on behalf of Ministers, and providing the necessary information and assistance to support decision making. In carrying out that role, the agency will operate from day to day at arm's length from Ministers. However, responsibility for making legislation and ultimate democratic accountability remain, very clearly, with Parliament.
788 The agency will have the general function of advising, informing and helping the public and others, including the food industry, on all matters within its scope. It will deliver independent and clear advice.
To enable the agency to discharge its advisory functions, the Bill places on it an obligation to keep abreast of the latest scientific and technological understanding, and of any other developments that are relevant to its work. I expect the agency to take a strong lead in developing a sound scientific base for food safety.
§ Joan Ruddock (Lewisham. Deptford)
As my right hon. Friend is surely aware, the G8 communiqué has said that references are to be made to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development scientific committees, for them to look into the products of genetic modification. Does he believe that those new studies, to be undertaken in the EU, will have any implications for the Food Standards Agency? Will he, under his wider responsibilities, ensure that the terms of reference of those studies are made available to Members of the House?
§ Mr. Brown
One of the purposes of the creation of the agency is to ensure transparency. I welcome the work that the OECD is to undertake. In particular, I think it is right to consider both the food safety and the trade aspects of the new technology. It is the Government's desire to be candid with the House and to ensure that information is in the public domain. I therefore give my hon. Friend, as far as it is my place to do so, the assurances that she seeks.
§ Mr. Steen
As I understand it, the incidence of food poisoning has increased in this country every year, and has increased fivefold since 1982. Each year since 1982, there have been more rules and regulations for food hygiene. Presumably, the new agency will recommend even more rules and regulations for food hygiene. Has the Minister estimated how many extra cases of food poisoning will result from the existence of the agency, which will make us cleaner and cleaner, and produce more and more cases of food poisoning?
§ Mr. Brown
The agency will provide effective advice to those who prepare and sell food, either in the catering industry or the retailing industry, those who store it and those who prepare food at home. There is a range of reasons for outbreaks of food poisoning and a range of methods to address them. That is not done just through the regulatory regime. Clear-cut advice to the public has an important part to play, in which the agency will provide a particular service and impetus.
§ Mr. Mullin
I see no reference in the Bill to farm animal welfare as it impacts on food safety. My right 789 hon. Friend is aware that the rise in food poisoning, to which the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) referred, is directly related to the growth of industrial farming and, for example, the massive misuse of antibiotics. Will the agency have the power to make suggestions about the way in which farm animals are reared, where that can be shown to be connected to the safety of food?
§ Mr. Brown
On the use of antibiotics as growth promoters rather than as veterinary interventions, yes, the agency will give advice to Ministers. The issue is under consideration at European Union level in the Council of Ministers.
On farm animal welfare, I know that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the toughest statement yet from Agriculture Ministers in the EU and the Commission, following the outcome of our latest meeting at Luxembourg on the trade aspects of animal welfare. As part of the forthcoming World Trade Organisation round, we have agreed to seek recognition for animal welfare measures within the WTO rules. As my hon. Friend knows, in the current WTO rules, there is no specific recognition of animal welfare, as opposed to animal hygiene and whether the product is fit for human consumption.
§ Mr. Brown
The FSA is an enforcing agency, but only of the rules that have been agreed by Parliament. It would be a rather feeble set-up if the agency could tell us what was wrong, but could not do anything about it. The functions being transferred to the agency are those that are at present carried out by food safety officials in my Department, by officials in the Department of Health and by the Meat Hygiene Service, which is a regulatory and advisory service. The agency will have responsibility for enforcing the rules that Parliament has agreed. As well as advising the public and the industry, it will advise Ministers. If necessary, Ministers will have to act on that advice and bring proposals before Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman can, I hope, take some comfort from the fact that the Bill contains a clear statement that the policy advice must be proportionate to risk. In other words, we want the public to be protected, but we do not want the agency to become over-regulatory and bureaucratic, which I expect is the fear that lies behind the hon. Gentleman's question.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. His comments provoked me to rise. If he and his officials conclude that, in a particular case, the agency is being over-cautious, and that its advice on new regulations is not proportionate to the risk assessed by him and his officials or by Department of Health officials, will he be able to stand in the way of a powerful new agency clamouring for new legislation?
§ Mr. Brown
Ultimately, those are decisions for Ministers and for the House. The lead Minister will be 790 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. One of the new features of the agency is transparency. It can formulate and explain its advice and put it in the public domain as well as giving it to Ministers, so that there can be a public discussion of the issues. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the balance of views on these matters depends to some extent on where the critic is coming from.
§ Mr. Brown
The entire Meat Hygiene Service is being transferred to the agency. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Meat Hygiene Service currently operates as a next steps agency reporting to my Department; it will operate as a stand-alone next steps agency reporting to the Food Standards Agency, which in turn will report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in respect of seeking a legislative route. That does not mean that there will be no consultation with my Department. Responsibilities for industry sponsorship, for example, remain with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and, clearly, we will want to establish a good working relationship with the agency and a clear dialogue. I have no doubt whatever that we will be able to do that.
§ Mr. Mullin
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene a second time. I certainly welcome the progress that has been made regarding the WTO, but my question was about the powers of the agency. Does he accept that there is a clear relationship between the way in which farm animals are treated and the safety of much of the food that we eat? If he does, what powers will the agency have to address that problem?
§ Mr. Brown
I do accept that, and there are enforcement mechanisms in place for farm animal welfare for the different livestock regimes. Indeed, at the Council in Luxembourg, we agreed to alter the rules for laying hens, which is a welcome and long-overdue reform. There are other regimes in place and a base level of animal welfare regulation is being introduced throughout the European Union. That forms the basis in respect of trade.
The hygiene levels that farmers are obliged to meet for the purposes of food safety probably fall short of what my hon. Friend means by acceptable animal welfare. For that reason, I and other Ministers who are coming from essentially the same direction are trying to raise animal welfare standards throughout the EU, to consider carefully what impact that will have on trade with third countries and to achieve some international recognition of the importance of animal welfare, especially in the increasingly liberalised world trading environment.
My hon. Friend and farmers would not thank Ministers who drove up animal welfare standards to such a pitch that they exported the industry, and so had neither an industry nor animal welfare. That is not our objective. We are making steady progress, but he is right to point out that we are in the vanguard on those issues. I am heartened by what came out of the latest Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg.
791 Having taken interventions, perhaps I can move on and, in particular, draw attention to the significant budget that the agency will have for commissioning and carrying out its own research and surveillance. It will be working closely with other Departments and funders of research. The agency will have powers, which are set out in clauses 10 and 11, to carry out surveillance at any stage in the food chain to enable it to monitor the general safety of the food supply, to identify and track any problems and to inform good decision making.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. My concern about the agency relates precisely to the task that he is setting out. Could not it be conducted by environmental health officers or health and safety inspectors? The feeling I am getting in the Vale of York is that we do not need extra bureaucracy. Can he convince the House that he needs an agency to undertake those specific obligations?
§ Mr. Brown
That is essentially work that is carried out currently. The purpose of the agency is to pull food safety work—the work of officials in my Department, in the Department of Health and in the Meat Hygiene Service, which employs the largest number—together into one place, but there will, of course, also be an important working relationship, which I will refer to in a moment, between the agency and the environmental health officers who are employed by local government. That is not another tier of officialdom, which is what the hon. Lady's question implied, but a better and rather more effective arrangement of what is in place at present.
§ Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)
Can the Minister explain how the agency's integrity and independence will be maintained when it is put above the Meat Hygiene Service? There will, no doubt, be another food scare, and the blame will whizz straight past the Meat Hygiene Service and be laid at the door of the head of the agency. The Special Select Committee made it clear that we thought that the Meat Hygiene Service should be separate from the Food Standards Agency so that it could perform its audit function without having its integrity questioned.
§ Mr. Brown
I was going to refer to that point later, but I may as well deal with it now. The Meat Hygiene Service's audit function will be separate and independent, so to that extent, the Special Select Committee's concern is met. However, the Government believe that, on balance, it is probably right for policy and implementation to be tied together. That means that the Meat Hygiene Service will report to Ministers through the agency. In other words, a next steps agency will report to the board of the Food Standards Agency. I accept that the Select Committee came to a different view on that point, but the Government have not accepted it—with the important qualification of the audit itself. The Government see some merit in what the Select Committee said about that, and want an independent and separate audit so that the arrangements are independent of the rest of the working arrangements for both policy making and enforcement. Therefore, although I cannot wholly meet the hon. Gentleman's concerns, the Government have gone some way to meeting them.
792 I return to a point that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) made earlier: the agency will have important new functions in setting standards for, and monitoring enforcement by, local authorities. Those powers are contained in clauses 12 to 16. It will also be required to report annually on the performance of its own enforcement work. That will include the work of the Meat Hygiene Service which, as a key enforcer of food safety law, will be integrated into the agency. The audit of the MHS will be carried out as a function separate from its day-to-day operation.
§ Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)
We have already heard about the significant rise in cases of food poisoning, and my hon. Friend reassured the House about how those will be tackled in the future. However, he will be aware that many more people in this country die every year as a result of poor nutritional standards—up to 30,000 are estimated to die of heart disease. How will the Food Standards Agency tackle the problem of nutritional standards as well as deal with microbiological safety and food standards?
§ Mr. Brown
I referred to that earlier in my remarks. The agency will work with the Department of Health on nutritional matters. There is no debarment to the agency working in that area. I understand that work is in progress on an agreement between the Department of Health and the agency about the details. The Department takes the matter seriously and looks forward to working with the agency on that issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who is sitting next to me, will have heard what my hon. Friend said, and I hope that my reply will reassure him.
The Bill provides for the agency to operate throughout the food chain, including on the farm. As well as being able to act to protect public health, the agency will have an input into other farm-related decisions that affect food safety. Those include the approval and review of pesticides and veterinary medicines. Because of its significance for public health, the agency will also have responsibility in the area of animal feeding stuffs. New powers will enable Ministers to update provisions on feeding stuffs so that regulation of animal feed is consistent with that of food for direct human consumption.
The Bill provides the basis for the agency to publish its advice and information to Ministers and other public bodies. Those powers are provided in clause 19. Having taken note of the comments made on the draft Bill, including by the Select Committee, we have brought the provisions on publication into a single clause that clarifies their effect.
The agency will operate with a general presumption of openness—the Bill provides the basis for that. Before publishing, the agency must consider any confidentiality issues, but it can publish information if it judges that that is in the public interest. It cannot automatically publish information protected by a prohibition on disclosure in other legislation or under a European Union obligation—for example, the Data Protection Act 1998. Some statutory bars are explicitly overridden by the Bill, and clause 25 contains enabling powers for Ministers to relax or remove other statutory prohibitions that hinder the agency's work.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)
Given the wide-ranging powers that the Minister has just described, 793 and the impact that they could have on farming practices, at least indirectly, will the Minister confirm that the Government intend that the agency will be accountable to the Select Committee on Health and the Select Committee on Agriculture?
§ Mr. Brown
It is not for me, as a Minister of the Crown, to comment on the workings of Select Committees, which are properly a matter for the House and not for me. As to the placing of information in the public domain, one of the agency's most important founding powers is openness. I remind the House that it is an independent agency, driven rationally and relying on science. Putting key conclusions that have been independently arrived at and key advice to Ministers in the public domain is an important power in its own right, and an important safeguard for the public, because the rest of the decision-making process must then be defended. I believe that that is right.
If a Select Committee wanted to take evidence on a particular subject, it would be able to do so. As we are all aware, a number of Select Committees are examining similar areas, inquiry by remorseless inquiry. My hon. Friend the Minister of State may make that point with some feeling—perhaps with feeling more than I could—when he winds up.
§ Mr. Paterson
Is it true that officials of the Meat Hygiene Service are obliged to sign the Official Secrets Act? If so, as there are 1,500 of them and they will be answerable to the Food Standards Agency, how will we have an open culture?
§ Mr. Brown
The point that we are making in the Bill is that policy advice to Ministers is not an official secret. Officials of the Meat Hygiene Service have the same obligations as other public servants. It is for the agency to decide whether to put advice into the public domain, not for employees to make their own decisions on a day-to-day basis.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am grateful to the Minister, as he has been most courteous in giving way. What new information on food safety may be published by the agency that his Department and the Department of Health do not presently issue?
§ Mr. Brown
The obvious answer is submissions and policy advice to Ministers. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, because he has carried out these duties, advice is given to Ministers, who decide whether to accept or reject it. In this important area of public safety, the new agency will arrive at its decisions independently. Its decisions will be science based—that is, not based on any economic interest of one sort or another—and placed in the public domain as policy advice to Ministers, especially the Secretary of State for Health.
There will, of course, be consultation within government, as happens now, but the fact that that advice is transparent and science based means that there can also be public discussion. There may be overriding factors that the Government wish to take into account in modifying the advice or even rejecting it outright, but for the first time, Ministers will have to be able to explain 794 their decisions. In the current climate, any Minister who introduced another factor would have to provide a pretty good explanation. That would be required by the House, and it would certainly be required by the public, given the way in which the public debate has been driven. Although it has been underplayed during the debate, this is an important new safeguard for the public.
§ Mr. Steen
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me three times.
May I switch the debate slightly? The agency will deal with health and hygiene standards. Last week, in answer to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) about genetically modified crops, the Minister seemed to say that if permission were given for a GM crop to be grown in another European country, there would be nothing to stop a company from applying to produce the appropriate technology here, and to grow in this country the crop that had been licensed to be grown in another country.
If permission has been given for a crop that is not accepted to be hygienic or safe in this country to be grown in another European country, will the agency be able to deal with the problem, or will it be outside the agency's remit?
§ Mr. Brown
I am not sure whether that is an environmental protection question, which would be outside the scope of the agency, or a food safety question, which would be entirely within its scope. If it is a food safety question, the regulatory regimes will be applied by the agency. If it believes that a product is to be put on the market in the United Kingdom that would be injurious to human health, it will have the power to say no. If there is a need for Ministers to act to protect the public, of course they will take such action.
Environmental protection is a slightly different matter, because of the United Kingdom's unique farm and environmental structures. The Government are determined to conduct trials before any genetically modified crops are introduced commercially, and to assess the impact on the rest of the environment. That strikes me as a sensible and methodical way in which to go about things. Environmental protection issues, however, are outside the scope of the agency's work.
The Bill contains provisions to ensure that the agency acts reasonably and proportionately, and that it is duly accountable to Parliament through Ministers. Clause 22 provides for a statement of the agency's objectives and practices to be drawn up, incorporating guiding principles that we laid down in the White Paper. The agency will also be required by clause 23 to take account of risks, costs and benefits to all concerned before making decisions or taking action, and any action should be based on the best scientific advice.
Ministers will retain the power to direct the agency should it fail seriously. We regard that as an essential safeguard if democratic accountability and control are to be retained. However, we have noted the views of the Select Committee, and no longer provide a power to direct the agency not to publish information when there are national security concerns. Although it is theoretically possible that such situations could arise, they will be rare if they occur at all, and the Government feel that they would be dealt with better in other ways.
795 As foreshadowed in the draft Bill, this Bill provides a new power in clause 27 to make regulations to establish a statutory notification scheme relating to different types of food-borne disease.
As the House will know, food safety is a devolved subject. The Bill, therefore, contains special provisions to ensure that the agency is accountable to the devolved authorities, and that Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can perform their devolved functions effectively. The Bill provides for the agency to be a United Kingdom body, but we made it clear when consulting on the draft Bill that the Government would consult formally with the devolved authorities to establish whether they were content to proceed with United Kingdom legislation on that basis. There has as yet been no agreement on devolution in Northern Ireland, but a debate is to take place in the Scottish Parliament, and the Health Committee of the Welsh Assembly will also be considering the principles in the Bill.
The Bill includes powers, in clauses 32 and 33, to deal with the consequences of any change by the devolved Administrations. The Bill also provides for the agency to co-operate with the new food safety promotion board, which will operate in the whole of Ireland after devolution in Northern Ireland.
The working arrangements between my Department and the Department of Health have made good progress in the joint food safety and standards group. On behalf of Ministers in both Departments, I should like to express my thanks to the officials who have been involved in that work—which has not only been done because it is right in itself, but has paved the way for the agency's establishment.
We are well advanced in preparing for the new agency—which the Bill will enable to operate as a separate legal entity. Our aim is that the agency should be formally launched in the first half of next year.
The Bill will provide the basis for a unique new body, which is independent, open and responsive to the concerns of consumers. I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
I apologise to the Minister for not being in the Chamber for the first part of his speech, but I shall study very carefully in Hansard the section that I missed.
The Opposition welcome the establishment of a Food Standards Agency, and are glad that the Government have decided to honour what they described asone of our most important manifesto commitments",namely, toestablish an independent food standards agency".However, the agency as proposed in the Bill falls rather a long way short of keeping the Government's pledge.
When the Prime Minister wrote in the preface to the 1998 White Paper that the Government would do away withthe old climate of secrecy and suspicion and replace it with modern, open arrangements which will deliver real improvements in standards",he raised our hopes. However, in its current form, the Bill will not achieve that aim. Nevertheless, we continue to live in hope.
796 The Bill is significantly changed from the draft Bill, which was published some months ago. One change is unreservedly welcome: the Government's climbdown on charging. Labour's original proposal to hit every small shop in the country with a flat-rate charge—precisely the same amount as a huge out-of-town superstore would pay—was unfair, unjustified and wrong. Conservative Members opposed that plan from the day that it was announced, and, after months of Conservative campaigning, the Government have finally seen sense. I trust that they will be equally ready to listen today, and to make the other necessary changes to the Bill.
As I am on the subject of charges, I should say that there remains some doubt about how permanent and complete the Government's decision not to hit small shops will be.
§ Mr. Nick Brown
I can help the hon. Gentleman on that. The clause dealing with the levy, and which would be the statutory foundation for such a charge, has been removed from the Bill. There is no primary legislation, and therefore no levy—more permanent than that one cannot get.
§ Mr. Yeo
I am relieved to hear that. However, does the Minister realise that the anxiety about the issue arises from the position of the Meat Hygiene Service, which is to be transferred to the new Food Standards Agency? The MHS already makes very substantial charges to slaughterhouses for inspection, and the burden of those high charges is driving many slaughterhouses out of business. Therefore, the principle of the agency—effectively via the MHS—making charges to parts of the industry already seems to be established. For that reason, the Minister's assurance is particularly badly needed.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)
The Bill proposes no changes to the Meat Hygiene Service charges, which are set at exactly the same levels as we inherited from the previous, Conservative Government. We are proposing no changes to those charges. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the Opposition now have an entirely new policy on the matter—that the MHS should not charge to recover its expenses, as required by European directives—will he say so?
§ Mr. Yeo
The Minister should have listened to what I said. I did not say that there was a new proposal from the Conservative party. I merely pointed out that in the context of the Bill and the Government's climbdown on the decision to charge small shops, there were already opportunities for the Government to charge businesses that are affected by the Bill.
§ Miss McIntosh
Perhaps I could help my hon. Friend. I understand that we are the only country in Europe that is interpreting the French word "vétérinaire" to mean fully qualified veterinary surgeons. Will my hon. Friend press the Minister on why we have interpreted that word so strictly, as environmental health inspectors or Health and Safety Executive officers could simply be retrained? Why should Spanish vets be allowed to do this job when they cannot tell the difference between the animals concerned?
§ Mr. Yeo
My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point to which the Minister of State will, I hope, 797 respond when he winds up the debate. This matter is causing great concern to the industry and is doing considerable damage to a number of small businesses. The effect is that small businesses must lower still further the prices that they can pay to the livestock farmers who supply them.
§ Mr. Paterson
Is my right hon. Friend aware of how catastrophic the charges are for small businesses? I received a letter from an abattoir in east Wales which is being charged, effectively, £180 a tonne in inspection charges, whereas a large supermarket in south Wales is charged, effectively, less than £1 a tonne.
§ Mr. Yeo
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. [Laughter.] I am sorry that members of the Government find it funny that small businesses up and down the country—some of which may be in their constituencies—are being destroyed. The consequence is that live animals have to travel far greater distances because, since the Government came to power, one slaughterhouse has closed every 10 days. My hon. Friend makes a good point about the uneven impact of the policy, and about the way in which it bears particularly heavily on small abattoirs.
Since the White Paper was published, several new issues relevant to the FSA have arisen. Recently, the Belgian food scare raised several questions. When the Belgian authorities belatedly decided to inform other countries of the presence of dioxins in certain Belgian animal feedstuffs and food products—something of which they had been aware for more than two months—why did they tell other countries before Britain?
Is it true that the British Government first heard about the problem from sources in the food industry, not directly from the Belgian authorities? Did the Minister himself hear of it first on Sunday 30 May from Commissioner Fischler? What happened during that missing weekend? Why did MAFF officials, who were told on Friday 28 May, not inform the Minister at once, as he prepared for an important European Council of Ministers meeting, about the possible contamination of some eggs and poultry produced in Belgium? Is being the last to know what Labour expects after all its efforts to please other European countries?
§ Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)
Perhaps I could bring the hon. Gentleman back to the subject of the Food Standards Agency. Does he believe that if we had had a Food Standards Agency two years into Baroness Thatcher's first Administration in 1981, agriculture and other industries would have been spared the terrible grief and suffering that they experienced because of mismanagement in the subsequent decade?
§ Mr. Yeo
We do not know the answer to that question. However, we do know that the agency is supposed to address issues of concern to consumers today. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I believe that consumers in this country were concerned about reports of possible contamination of eggs and poultry produced in Belgium. That would have been a matter for the Food Standards Agency, had it been in operation. If those matters are not the agency's responsibility, I wonder why it is being set up.
798 The hon. Gentleman asked about what happened in 1981, which shows that he is more interested in making a political point than in tackling issues that are of concern to consumers today and for which the Government are responsible.
The question that the Minister must answer above all is how the existence of the Food Standards Agency would have helped in the recent Belgian food scare. What would or could it have done to alleviate that significant food safety problem? Would it, too, have been kept in the dark by the Belgian authorities? Has the Minister made any protest to the Belgian Government? If so, was it in writing and will he publish it? He should not rely on the European Commission to protest, because Britain was kept in the dark longer than several other European Union countries.
The Minister seems to regard this as a matter for mirth.
§ Mr. Nick Brown
I am tempted to regard what the hon. Gentleman is saying as a matter for mirth. The fact is that our public officials responded promptly and in an exemplary way to the recent dioxin scandal. It is wrong for him to imply that there is anything wrong with either eggs or poultry products in this country; there is not.
Let me also make it clear, for the avoidance of any doubt, that we promptly paralleled the actions that the Commission has taken. I support Commissioner Fischler in what he has done. For the hon. Gentleman to imply that there is some protectionist advantage to be taken from this tragedy is wrong both for our food industry and for our trading relationships with others in the European Union.
§ Mr. Yeo
When the Minister reads Hansard, he will see that he has completely misrepresented what I said. I make no criticism of what Commissioner Fischler did; my concern is over the fact that the Belgian authorities kept this country in the dark for two and a half months yet the Minister sits there complacently, tacitly admitting that he has made no protest. What use will the Food Standards Agency be?
§ Mr. Brown
When I first found out about it, I described the failure of the Belgian authorities properly to inform their partners in the European Union as a scandal. I said that here, at the Dispatch Box, and the hon. Gentleman was present at the time. He has no right to say that I have remained silent on the issue, because he was here when I was far from silent. My remarks on behalf of the United Kingdom Government have been widely reported in the Belgian press and elsewhere on the continent.
§ Mr. Yeo
I am sure that the Belgian Government are reeling. The fact is that the Minister is notoriously reluctant to make any complaint about the actions of other European Union Governments. Even after we provided the evidence of unlawful payments by the French Government to French pig farmers, placing British pig producers at a yet further disadvantage, he refused to act. He asked us to produce the evidence, which eventually we did.
§ Mr. Yeo
I personally delivered a copy of the speech made by the French Minister on the subject, after the Minister had refused to take any action, when we referred to these matters on the Floor of the House.
799 British consumers will not be satisfied by the complacency of a Minister who feels that one statement in the House of Commons represents sufficient protest against the Belgian Government, who may have put the safety of British consumers at risk for two and a half months after that Government were aware of those risks. The fact that he makes no protest about that is a fearful indictment of the Minister's attitude, and underlines how completely paralysed the Food Standards Agency will be if it has to rely on information that comes to it as slowly as the Government received the information from Belgium.
The second issue that has arisen is the Government's confusion over genetically modified crops and food with GM ingredients, a controversy that is now so heated that it has been discussed in the margins of the G8 Heads of Government meeting. Nothing in the Bill suggests that the Food Standards Agency would be able to defuse that controversy. In the past six months, public confidence in Britain in a potentially beneficial technology has been destroyed by the Government's failure to address the serious environmental and health questions posed by GM crops.
§ Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that what may have caused some of the lack of public confidence was what happened over BSE under his Government?
§ Mr. Yeo
There are now millions of British people who are seriously alarmed by the way in which this Government have ridden roughshod over the advice they have received about the environmental dangers of GM crops. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the right way to respond to those legitimate public concerns is to try to make a cheap point about BSE, he will not be in this House much longer.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)
What did the Conservatives do, when they were in government, to take account of public concerns when they approved four GM foodstuffs for sale? What reassurances did they provide for the public?
§ Mr. Yeo
The concern to which the hon. Lady referred is a different one from my anxiety about—[Laughter.] Well, it is a pity to waste the House's time when interventions are as ignorant as that. I was talking about the environmental risks posed by GM crops. That was not an issue that arose at any time during the Conservative Government's time in office. The issue to which the hon. Lady referred is the separate one of whether the food on sale in this country which contains GM ingredients is safe. The food passed all the tests that were available at the time and we have no reason to believe that it is not safe.
I remain concerned by the way in which public confidence has been destroyed and by the fact that that process of destruction has been personally masterminded by the Prime Minister. On 3 February, the Prime Minister told the House:It is important that we proceed on the basis of the scientific evidence."—[Official Report, 3 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 926.]A day later, English Nature—the Government's statutory adviser on nature conservation matters—exposed that 800 claim as fraudulent. Its chairman, a Labour peer appointed to her post by this Government, wrote:We cannot assure the public that decisions are being made on the basis of good environmental science.Alarmed by that, the Government have since acted to prevent advice from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser from being published until it has been examined by the so-called biotechnology presentation group. Ministers are no longer willing for advice from senior and objective sources to be made public until it has been censored by Government spin doctors. That outrageous manipulation of public opinion is presumably an attempt to avoid the Prime Minister again being humiliated by having his statements in the House immediately contradicted by statutorily appointed experts.
§ Mr. Rooker
I invite the hon. Gentleman to write to Sir Robert May, the Government's chief scientist, and to Professor Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, and ask them whether they feel that Ministers have at any time interfered with their reports before publication.
§ Mr. Yeo
I have with me a confirmation from both those gentlemen that their advice was revised after a meeting of the biotechnology presentation group. As usual with Labour, the reputation of Ministers matters more than the protection of the public health and the British environment. Once again, millions of consumers who are worried about eating food with GM ingredients will ask how the Food Standards Agency will help them. The answer is that the agency as currently proposed will do nothing whatever to allay their fears or to warn them about the possible presence of GM ingredients in the food they buy.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
I remind the hon. Gentleman of when his party was in power and the Advisory Board for the Research Councils was refused permission to publish its advice to Ministers. Does he recall that?
§ Mr. Yeo
I recall clearly that when the Conservative Government were in power the concern about GM crops and food with GM ingredients was not running at its present level. [Laughter.] It is instructive, and I hope that Hansard will record, that Ministers find public concern about the environmental consequences of GM crops a matter for laughter. Conservatives happen to believe that, if circumstances change and public concern about an issue grows, it is correct and necessary to review policy, whether a party is in government or opposition.
§ Joan Ruddock
I believe that the hon. Gentleman said that, under the previous Government, the GM foods that were licensed were subjected to tests and were considered safe. Does he honestly believe that the situation would have been any different if there had been a Food Standards Agency? Why is he casting aspersions on that agency in respect of environmental issues which will not be within the agency's proposed remit?
§ Mr. Yeo
The hon. Lady has herself now explained that the agency will not help to allay the fears of those consumers who are worried about eating food with GM ingredients. I have said that that food passed the tests 801 that were available at the time it was approved, but many consumers are nevertheless concerned about eating it. My question is what the Food Standards Agency could do to help that situation. I believe that it could do nothing at all.
As for the environmental dangers, I believe that the agency should be able to consider the environmental consequences of GM crops. Organic farmers are very concerned about the possible impact on the integrity of their crops. Their concern arises directly from the planting of GM crops in their neighbourhood, and it is connected to people's concerns about the food that they buy. If the Food Standards Agency is supposed to be about making food safer, it should recognise that those environmental concerns could be relevant.
On the two tests of the Belgian food scare and GM crops, the Food Standards Agency will fail in its primary aim. Indeed, the more carefully the Bill is analysed, the more it looks like a device for protecting Ministers rather than consumers. Substantial changes to the Bill are needed to make the agency an effective guardian of consumer interests, to prevent the agency from placing British farmers at an even greater competitive disadvantage than they currently are, and to make the agency sufficiently independent of Ministers to command public confidence.
Let us consider the question of imports. More than a fifth—perhaps almost a third—of the food consumed in Britain is imported, but the Bill does not make it clear how the agency will scrutinise those imports. Most of the sweeping powers that the Bill will give the agency can be exercised only in Britain. Does the agency create any additional safeguards for consumers against risks that may arise from eating food grown outside Britain? Will not the agency simply focus on the farmers, processors and distributors in Britain, so that eggs produced at home will be more carefully monitored and pigmeat produced at home subject to ever more regulation? Meanwhile, imports will carry on as before.
Why do the Government believe that British-grown food must be checked in ways not necessary for food produced abroad? Why is the Minister so determined to discriminate against British farmers? Take for example the poor old beef farmer, who still cannot export any beef because of the Government's failure to implement the conditions attached to the ending of the export ban. Last November, the Minister basked in the praise when he announced the end of the export ban, but seven months later, not an ounce of beef has been exported from the British mainland. British beef farmers still suffer from the gratuitous blow to confidence in their product that resulted from the extraordinary ban on beef on the bone.
Costs are forcing slaughterhouses to close and are reducing prices available to livestock farmers. To add insult to injury, the British Government—alone in the European Union—want to feed hormone-fed US beef to British consumers, even though British farmers cannot use the same hormones. If the Government want to justify the agency as it is proposed, they must show either that imported food has received the same degree of scrutiny as home-grown food, or that they have reason to require British farmers and food processors to pass stricter tests than those in, say, Thailand.
§ Mr. Paterson
On the point of closures due to excessive regulation and regimes that are not applied on 802 the continent, the pig processing plant at Malton, one of the largest in the country, was closed last week. That firm's holding company will now import less-well-regulated meat from the continent. What is the advantage to the British consumer in that?
§ Mr. Yeo
Clearly, there is no advantage, as my hon. Friend implies. Rather, there is a disadvantage to British consumers, and to British farmers. Each time a British producer goes out of business, it is likely that more food will be imported, some of which will come from producers who do not meet the same standards as British farmers.
The agency's inability to scrutinise imports leads to the next area of concern. Food labelling is becoming a matter of intense anxiety. Consumers are sold items labelled as British that were grown in any country except Britain, and by methods prohibited here. Nothing on the label on the food has to warn them about that.
For example, meat and bonemeal from British cows cannot be used by British chicken and pig farmers. Instead, such products go abroad, to be used by French and Belgian chicken and pig farmers, whose chickens and pigs are then imported back into this country. What could the Food Standards Agency do about that? Could it at least warn consumers on the labels of products made from those meats and imported from countries where meat and bonemeal is still used that that is the case?
Of course, retailers and producers make voluntary efforts to tackle the inadequacy of our labelling. The assured British meat scheme operated by the Meat and Livestock Commission is a good example. However, too many food products are still being bought by British consumers in complete ignorance of the country of origin and the method of production. When will the Minister address that problem? How many British livestock farmers must go bust before the Government act?
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) pointed out, the consequence is that more food is being imported. Will the Minister say what efforts he has made in the 11 months that he has been in his job to persuade the European Union to introduce a Europe-wide system of labelling? Such a system would require every food item to show the country in which the food was grown, and the method by which it was produced.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time, but did not the previous Government—of whom he was a member—resist all attempts to label GM foods? Did they not also resist calls to put pressure on the Americans to label GM soya?
§ Mr. Yeo
Am I right in thinking that the Prime Minister was in favour of nuclear disarmament when he first entered the House and that he opposed every attempt to introduce trade union reforms? Did he not also oppose every privatisation, which the Government now support? Is the hon. Lady seriously saying that, even though circumstances change, politicians should adhere rigidly and ignorantly to every view that they have ever held?
803 Public concern about genetically modified crops has grown immeasurably in the past two and half years. This Government have been disgracefully lax in not responding to consumers' anxiety.
§ Mr. Yeo
No, I must make progress.
Consumers who wish to support high standards of animal welfare cannot do so at present. Those who wish to avoid eating food with genetically modified ingredients cannot do so. How will the Food Standards Agency address their concerns? The information that consumers require should be an integral part of preserving high food standards.
I turn now to the Food Standards Agency board. The relevant background involves the recent appointment of the board of the Countryside Agency, which contains scarcely any members with direct experience of mainstream farming. Clause 2 refers tothe desirability of securing that a variety of skills and experience is available among the members of the Agency".It specifies two types of experience, which are to bein matters related to food safety or other interests of consumers".Do the Government consider that farmers, or others with experience of food production, should be represented on the board? If the Government believe that a vegetarian is the right person to be responsible for Welsh farm matters at a time when Welsh livestock farmers face the worst crisis for a generation, the agriculture industry is right to worry about the possible composition of the Food Standards Agency board.
The process for appointing board members reinforces those worries. One member is to be appointed by the Welsh Assembly, two are to be appointed by Scottish Ministers, and another is to be appointed by the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland. The others are to be appointed by the Secretary of State—presumably, the Secretary of State for Health, although the Bill does not say so.
There is therefore a mixture of methods of appointment—by elected politicians in Wales, by Government Ministers in Scotland, and by civil servants in Northern Ireland. The Bill also provides for Scotland to have as many as a quarter of board members, which continues Labour party policy of discrimination against England. As Labour did especially disastrously in England in the recent European elections, I fear that that tendency will continue.
The Bill provides also for the compulsory establishment of advisory committees for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Why are those committees needed? If they are really needed, why is one not needed for England? Can it be that there are still some Labour cronies in Wales and Scotland not yet on the public payroll?
The same pattern emerges in clause 3, which provides for the appointment of directors. Predictably, there are to be directors for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not one for England. The seventh guiding principle in the White Paper states:In its decisions and actions, the Agency will aim to achieve clarity and consistency of approach.How does that discrimination fulfil that principle?
804 Finally, I turn to the aspect of the agency that will be at the heart of its success or failure—its ability to act independently of the Government. The agency's value will depend on its being regarded by the public as independent and objective, with the ability to give decisions and advice that are authoritative and taken without political pressure. The White Paper said that the agency would be at "arm's length from Government", but clause 6 requires the agency to do whatever Ministers ask it to do. Clause 17 insists that nothing that the agency does in relation to a food emergency prevents the Secretary of State from taking action. Presumably, that is to give the Government the power to reverse, for political reasons, decisions taken by the agency.
In the final analysis, the agency is at risk of remaining simply at the beck and call of Ministers. Its freedom to act independently is no greater than that of any existing body or individual. The Secretary of State controls the agency's budget, appoints its board and, under clause 24, has the power to dismiss the board and take over its role.
Given that Ministers already feel the need to filter advice about food from the chief scientific adviser, the Bill hardly inspires confidence that the interests of consumers will come before those of Ministers. Indeed, the agency's lack of independence raises other problems.
Clause 6 requires the agency to provideadvice, information and assistance … to any public authority",but not to publish that advice. Clause 8 requires the agency to obtain and review information about food safety and to monitor the relevant scientific developments, but not to publish the information. Clause 23 requires the agency to assess the risk to public health in a given situation, but not to publish that risk assessment. Clause 19 allows the agency to publish certain information, but, given the Government's reluctance to reveal information on matters such as genetically modified crops, there can be little confidence that openness and transparency will rule, particularly as clause 19(7) allows the Government to use subordinate legislation to prevent the publication of any information. There is a huge potential for Labour to indulge its control freak tendencies.
The Bill falls far short of honouring the claim in the ministerial foreword to the White Paper that the agencywill be free to publish any of the advice it provides".A Government who use civil servants to try to find supposedly independent scientists to appear on the "Today" programme on Radio 4 cannot be trusted to respect the independence of the Food Standards Agency.
§ Mr. Nick Brown
This is a pretty appalling contribution. It takes a lot for me to say that, because I have tried to deal with the issue in a neutral way. For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear that the agency will be free to publish whatever material it wants.
§ Mr. Yeo
In that case, I look forward to the Minister accepting some of the amendments that we shall table. I am sorry that the Minister thinks that it is appalling for the Opposition to raise concerns about how the agency will scrutinise imported food or about the inadequacy of the present labelling laws, which keep consumers in the dark about how the animals from which their food was produced were kept. I do not think that it is appalling for us to raise what are matters of grave concern to 805 British consumers, British farmers and British food retailers. If the Minister thinks that it is, he will go on being appalled for many months.
Not only will the agency be subject to ministerial control and interference, but it will be given powers to monitor the work of elected local authorities and force them to publish any criticisms that it may make. Schedule 3 allows the Minister to direct the agency to take over the functions of an elected local authority on food and hygiene standards, monitoring and enforcement. Is that what the White Paper meant when it said that the agency would operate at "arm's length from Government"? Is it not further proof that the agency will be an extension of ministerial power?
The Conservative party supports the principle of a Food Standards Agency, but we believe that only an agency established in a manner that will command public confidence and that is genuinely independent of the Government will offer an improvement on the present arrangements and will be able to address public concerns. The Opposition will not vote against Second Reading, but we shall seek to amend and improve the Bill in Committee and on Report. I trust that the Government will be open-minded.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
I welcome the Bill and I am delighted that it is called the Food Standards Bill, not the Food Safety Bill. It is important to have a wider generic view of the issue. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on introducing the Bill and on succeeding in doing so during this Session. At one point, we thought that that would not be possible. I am delighted that he has found the time, because this is a very important Bill.
I pay tribute to Philip James, who is the author of the Bill. In the 1980s, he helped the Labour party to draw up similar proposals. In the late 1980s, when I led for the Opposition, I called for a Food Standards Agency and was ridiculed by the Conservative Government. I am delighted that the Conservative Opposition support the Bill and will seek, in their view, to improve it. I welcome that conversion.
We have waited a long time for the Bill. If the Conservative Government of the late 1980s and early 1990s had established an agency along the lines that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) has advocated, many of the food scares and incidents would have been minimised. If there had been more openness, more independence and more of an arm's length approach to the handling of food scares such as salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, BSE and Chernobyl, the public would have had much more confidence. They were not just food scares, they were incidents in which people died.
§ Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)
Has my right hon. Friend been following the BSE inquiry and seen the number of examples of the secrecy that surrounded the crisis? This is not a cheap jibe, because one of my constituents died of CJD.
§ Dr. Clark
One of the incidents that has convinced me of the need for legislation on freedom of information and 806 a Food Standards Agency is the BSE affair. Not only have I been following the inquiry, I have been invited by Justice Phillips to give evidence, and I have done that. If we had had an arm's length organisation, not only would there be public confidence, but politicians might have been saved embarrassment. Way back in April 1986, the then Minister of Agriculture, with all the good faith in the world, said that the problems relating to Chernobyl would be over by the weekend. Thirteen years later, there are still restricted farms in Scotland, Wales and the north of England. I do not blame the then Minister. I am merely saying that the advice that he was given was not adequate to meet the problem. Politicians from all parties have lost the confidence of the public on food safety and standards. Some of the gimmicks that Ministers have perpetrated, including feeding hamburgers to children, were not a clever way to get across to people that they were in charge of a situation and knew what they were doing.
The Food Standards Agency will preserve the democratic ethos, but remove the best scientific advice on food safety to arm's length. That is a step forward. The agency must wrestle with the problems that the hon. Member for South Suffolk raised about genetically modified food. We need the best scientific evidence on that. We also need the best scientific advice on bovine somatotropin, which we argued against when we were in opposition. The information must be in the public domain. A non-political Food Standards Agency containing a mixture of professionals and lay persons is the best way forward.
There are two prerequisites if the agency is to be the success that we all want. The first is that it should have the best scientific advice. Secondly, and just as importantly, there must be greater openness and transparency than there has been in the past. I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said that the general presumption would be for transparency and openness. If those are his watchwords, this will be very effective legislation. The Bill fits hand in glove with the Freedom of Information Bill, which we shall soon consider.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk raised several pertinent points—it was the one section of his speech that was pertinent—about the agency's openness and transparency. Clauses 19 and 22 clearly state what the position should be. Clause 22 provides forsecuring that records of its decisions, and the information on which they are based, are kept"—this is critical—and made available with a view to enabling members of the public to make informed judgments about the way in which it is carrying out its functions".That is a good statement of intent.
In considering that, we must ask several questions. Will the same remit apply to the advisory committees of the Food Standards Agency? In the past, some of the advisory committees that advise the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of Agriculture have been too secretive for their own good and have not helped the cause of food standards and safety.
I want to consider statutory bars. Clause 19 of the Freedom of Information Bill stops the publication of information whose publication is prohibited under other legislation. More than 200 Acts of Parliament prohibit such releases of information. I hope that my right 807 hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will engage with the Home Secretary on the Freedom of Information Bill to ensure that the statutory bars in the Food Standards Bill are reduced to the absolute minimum. That is very important.
Will my right hon. Friend also ensure that the public interest test in clause 19(3), which is a good one, fits with the prejudicial test in the Freedom of Information Bill? It is important that the most liberal interpretation of the public interest is followed.
I welcome this very important Bill. I spent many years arguing for it in opposition and chaired the Cabinet Committee responsible for drawing it up. It has widespread support, not only among consumers, but among the more enlightened producers. If we get the Bill right, we can rebuild trust with our citizens. There is a prospect of building consensus with the farmers and producers of our good-quality British food. In the end, the issue will be transparency and accountability. I believe that we will get arm's length, best scientific advice, but the Government must be open about it, because, if people find that something to do with food safety and standards has been covered up, they will think that much more will be covered up. In welcoming the Bill and congratulating my right hon. Friend, I urge him to stick by his watchwords that the general presumption is for openness and transparency.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and hope to respond to some of his thoughtful points. First, I declare an interest. My wife is a director, and I a shareholder, of a traditional grocer's shop in Cornwall that sells wonderful Cornish speciality food. It is owned by the Duke of Cornwall, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. The House will realise that it is, therefore, a high-quality establishment. That ends the commercial. I have always regarded declarations of interests as good advertisements.
We welcome the Bill. We could hardly do anything else because we have campaigned for it for many years under successive Governments. We believe that the Government have taken an important step to meeting some of the concerns to which the right Member for South Shields referred. The mismanagement and misinformation that have surrounded the controversies over BSE, the many E. coli outbreaks and the clandestine development of genetically modified foods over many years—to which Labour Members have already referred—should surely give us cause for welcoming the Bill. Despite what the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), told us, the previous Administration failed lamentably to meet public concerns on such issues. I welcome his conversion. The Member for hindsight is welcome to the House this afternoon; I just wish it had been foresight.
If this body is to be effective, it must deal with the whole food chain from plough to plate. As the recent food scare in Belgium showed, such matters cannot be contained in a national framework because they are international, and the European Union has an important role to play. I want to illustrate the implications of the Belgian scandal for internationalism, for the need for very accurate information, including accurate and informative 808 labelling, and for the role of the media by drawing attention to a report in The Daily Telegraph last week that Sainsburys has been selling butter, labelled as English, that contains Belgian butter. I hope that the Government can say whether that is true, but it shows both the importance of good information and how far international issues can impinge on the confidence of the British public in the food given to us.
I very much welcome the way in which the Bill has been handled and the consultation on the draft Bill. Most importantly, I welcome how it was used, very appropriately, as a pilot for finding out whether the ideas of the Modernisation Committee on Special Committees would be effective. I know that all hon. Members who served on it, and I think the House generally, found it a worthwhile exercise. I hope that it will be repeated with similar legislation. The Bill has evolved as a result, and Ministers are right to take credit for listening to people inside and outside the House and to the Agriculture Committee.
The most obvious U-turn is on the levy, the so-called food poll tax. All hon. Members will welcome that change of heart. I pay tribute to the Minister of Agriculture for realising that it would have been patently unfair to implement a flat-rate charge on all retailers so that the small corner shop would have to fork out the same as the huge hypermarket down the road.
It is also an important advantage that the agency will therefore not be seen to be in the pocket of major food interests. I hope that the Minister who replies will tell us exactly where the additional cash will come from. Will it be from the Department of Health's budget and, if so, what will suffer? Will it come from the Minister of Agriculture's budget or has he, in his inimitable way, tied the arm of his namesake in the Treasury behind his back and extracted new money? If so, I pay him a genuine tribute.
The problem is that the public have perceived successive Governments as being too much in the pocket of the food industry. Supermarkets and big businesses have often enjoyed a cosy relationship with Whitehall. As we saw in the aftermath of the appalling BSE bombshell, the big abattoir owners had far too much influence over the immediate response of Ministers and civil servants. It will be important for the agency to demonstrate from the beginning that is quite separate from those interests. That is vital if the agency is to be credible in the public eye.
Much has been said this afternoon about the credibility of Ministers and advisers who give guidance to the public about food safety and nutrition. As Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman in the last Parliament, I challenged the then Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), asking him whether he understood that, when he made a statement on television that a particular method of food production was perfectly safe, 75 per cent. of those watching and listening simply did not believe him. The situation has improved since the general election, but only slightly—I see the Minister of State nodding. We must recognise that, after a lack of credibility problem spanning decades, current Ministers and their advisers face a credibility gap. The right hon. Member for South Shields is absolutely correct: the only way to tackle that problem is through greater transparency.
809 The Liberal Democrats believe that the way to achieve transparency is to make the agency responsive and accountable to a Special Select Committee comprising members of the Health and Agriculture Select Committees. We regret that the agency will be firmly under the control of the Department of Health. That is the one major structural fault in the Bill, and I hope to return to that issue later. I notice that several Agriculture Ministers are on the Government Front Bench but no senior spokesmen from the Department of Health. As the agency will be that Department's baby in due course, I regret that those Ministers are not taking more interest in its health.
We could have brought together elements of agriculture, fishing, food processing, health and consumer expertise in a Special Select Committee of the House, modelled perhaps on the Public Accounts Committee and its special role of monitoring the work of the Audit Commission. That would have been a better way forward than this proposal.
I accept that it is crucial that the chairman, members and chief executive have no conflicting interests or connections in the food industry. I accept also that adopting the Irish version of the agency would have afforded better parliamentary scrutiny and public accountability. I will address that issue later.
Accountability and transparency are the core of the case for this agency. We must make real progress on the lamentable situation that prevailed during the previous Parliament. I notice that a wide range of organisations—from the Food and Drink Federation to the Tenant Farmers Association—have pinpointed that as the most important factor. For the sake of the reputation of British food and our confidence in it, the agency must have integrity to be credible.
The agency must not be some sort of giant bureaucratic liquidiser, which gathers huge amounts of information but has no clear strategy. If it mixes and swallows the interests of many different groups yet has no coherent strategy, there will be a real problem. I hope that the agency's strategy will recognise the tremendous value of the diverse food that we enjoy in Britain. For too long, food policy seemed to be aimed at protecting the largest food processors without recognising the interests of smaller specialist firms.
That is particularly true of the consultation upon which successive Governments embarked. It was much easier to talk to one or two big boys than get a feel for what is significant to the smaller operators. During 18 years of Conservative rule, ministerial consultation seemed always to proceed on the diktat that "big business knows best". Small food producers and low throughput abattoirs have been swamped by legislation that is geared more to the needs of huge organisations.
That has not occurred elsewhere in the European Union, so blaming Europe for that mind set seems irrational and misplaced. As many recent cases have shown—whether in the abattoir sector, the specialist cheese sector or the raw milk industry—huge bureaucratic sledgehammers have been used to knock the sectors into shape. As a result, we have lost the small producers' once-thriving contribution to the nation's food resources. That is a serious issue. As in the case of Duckett's 810 cheese—to which I have drawn attention several times in the House—I hope that lessons will be learned. The over-zealous activities of the hygiene police can rob us of products and processes that are valuable to our national life.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We could learn another lesson from our continental neighbours, on the role of co-operatives, which are much more important on the continent than in this country. They protect both producers and consumers, and I would welcome the hon. Gentleman's views—as a co-operative Member of Parliament—about how we can encourage the growth of co-operatives in Britain. That is an important step forward.
§ Mr. Tyler
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention, and I endorse his remarks fully. We have failed in this country to direct the necessary investment from all levels of government to the development of the co-operative movement. A sad result is that competition in other European states between the co-operatives representing the primary producers and the big retailing giants is much more healthy and lively than competition in this country. When the report of the competition agency—I think that that is its new title—into the supermarkets is available to the House and when the investigation of the monopoly tendencies in milk retailing is concluded, I hope that there will be a real recognition of the important role of co-operatives in the future.
Let me revert to the way in which this measure will differ from previous legislation. It is remarkable to note that, in the past, officials seemed always to target the small producers. I cannot believe—it is simply not credible—that shortfalls and failures did not occur also among larger manufacturers and producers. It is clear that successive Governments often complicated matters by adding to the recipe passed to us from Brussels in the form of EU directives and, in the process, radically changing its essence. In many other European states, such as France and Holland, small specialist producers have gained artisan status. In so doing, they have qualified for a less bureaucratic and less rigorous imposition of regulation. They have not suffered the same regulatory nightmare that would ultimately put them out of business, but our specialist producers still suffer that overload.
The new agency must have a clarity of purpose that will put principle at its centre. For example, it cannot ignore its responsibility to keep the public informed about its activities. Through research, and through the total transparency and openness to which the right hon. Member for South Shields referred, I believe that it will be possible to regain the trust of consumers and producers. However, there are no half measures: the agency must be seen to provide all information and to withhold none. It must be seen to put all the evidence before the public rather than providing its own interpretation of the evidence. If it does not supply all the facts, it will quickly lose whatever credibility it has gained through its actions. The agency will be viewed with the same suspicion that the present system has attracted unless there is an evident sea change at its inception. That is why we believe that the agency must be free from vested interest from the top.
People have become increasingly concerned about the extent to which quangos operate behind closed doors. That has been true ever since the previous Conservative Government allowed many quangos to flourish.
811 When Professor James was first asked to draw up proposals for a Food Standards Agency in early 1997, he envisaged a body that would examine the entire food issue. Such a body would have powers of access regarding auditing, surveillance and enforcement from plough to plate. There was an acceptance that food touches on a variety of interests across the fields of agriculture, the environment and even trade. As is apparent from the problems with which the World Trade Organisation has grappled recently, trade will become increasingly important.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk was entirely correct to say that the public must be reassured that imports—which constitute 30 per cent. of the food we consume—are treated in the same way as home-produced goods. There must be an absolutely level playing field. I wish that had been the case under the previous Conservative Government; for example, my efforts to persuade Ministers in that Government to attack the problem of the import of substandard pork and pigmeat products fell on deaf ears. I am glad that the Labour Government are at least listening, although progress is mighty slow.
The draft legislation that developed from Professor James's report covered a remit that was somewhat shrunken from that which he originally intended. However, after the consultations, we have now developed a wider remit, and that is helpful. Of course, the central principle of the agency is that of food safety; its primary role is to ensure that food is placed on our plate in a safe condition. That means that the food must be produced, handled, transported, packaged and even sold with the minimum risk of contamination.
However, I am glad that we are now moving beyond that core responsibility. There is not a great difference between what is safe and what is healthy—or perhaps there should not be a great difference. If we move along a continuum from one to the other, we adopt a more realistic attitude to the whole of food production. A fried breakfast may be safe to eat—that is, free from contamination—but it is not necessarily healthy. If it is eaten in such quantity that it causes serious damage to a middle-aged male like me, that is clearly a real problem.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I sometimes eat a fried breakfast—very occasionally. Does he not realise that no foods are unhealthy in themselves and that it is our unhealthy diet about which we should be concerned? It is nonsense for the hon. Gentleman to talk about moving from safe foods to healthy foods. It is the overall balance of what we do—the exercise that we take and the foods that we eat—that we should be concerned about, not individual foods that he may perceive as being bad for us.
§ Mr. Tyler
I want to make some progress, as I know that many hon. Members want to speak.
Clause 1(2) sets out that the agency will have a role in regard to nutrition and diet. That is right, and balance is part of that role. Before I was re-elected to this place, I was an adviser to the Meat and Livestock Commission, and I had a discussion with an expert nutritionist after he had presented some information to a wider audience. I asked him to give me the real answer. That eminent doctor gave me the league table of importance in relation to diet and health. He said, "First, choose your parents with care". That was at the top of the list. Secondly, a long way down the list, came stress. He said that one was far more likely to damage one's health from worrying about diet than from the diet. The next factor was smoking—I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border indulges. Diet comes a long way down the list. That is absolutely true.
However, equally, it is true that, for some people, at some times, the elements of their diet are extremely important. That presents us with a real dilemma, and we must not dodge it. We must get the balance right. Some of those who responded to the Agriculture Committee pointed out the narrowness of the borderline. For example, the evidence of Marks and Spencer stated:Some of the media response to the recent COMA report shows how easily health advice can he rejected as interference by the 'Nanny' state. The Food Standards Agency must not be allowed to jeopardise its credibility in this way.That is a balanced statement. However, it will not be an easy matter and, on occasions, we shall criticise the agency for being too prescriptive and too firm in its advice and for not being sufficiently flexible, or willing to accept that a balance is required. It is right that the Bill makes no attempt to separate food safety from food quality or from food standards. There is a continuum, and we are right to realise that.
For the agency to be acknowledged as the leading authority in its field, its research must be fundamental. The agency must lead the debate on a wide range of issues—from contaminants and zoonoses to novel foods. The problem is that, under the current proposals, the research budget is insufficient to fulfil that important task. That concern has already been addressed by such authorities as Professor Hugh Pennington and Professor Tim Lang. As Ministers have been so successful in extracting additional funds from the Treasury to pay for the agency, I hope that the continuing research programme will also be properly resourced, to ensure that it keeps ahead of the game. In the past, notably in respect of genetically modified foods, it was clear that the funds—the resources and investment—for the development of novel foods were much greater than those available for monitoring and surveillance. We must try to redress that balance.
The agency will not be able to define its own research agenda for the first three years. That is hard to justify and I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will be able to explain why that is so.
§ Mr. Rooker
I will explain now. Most research projects are on a three-year rolling programme, which is 813 reviewed from time to time. A few weeks ago, the joint food safety and standards group, which is the embryo of the agency—we are not working on a green-field site—published the programme for the bids for food research that will start next year. We agreed that programme with the group; it is its programme. In effect, that is the embryo of the Food Standards Agency making its first decision. We said that those would be the first research projects under the aegis of the agency—assuming that the legislation is passed. I ask the House not to divorce the agency—as a body that does not exist in any shape or form—from current practice. It does have control over the beginning of the research programme.
§ Mr. Tyler
I appreciate the Minister's point. All I am saying is that I hope that, as soon as the agency is up and running, if it is as good as we think that it will be, it will be realised that its authority depends on being able to feed into that research programme as soon as possible. I hope that it will respond to some of the new information that will be available.
In the Prime Minister's statement earlier, he referred to the views expressed at the Cologne summit about the role that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development might play in respect of genetically modified organisms. In the past, the Minister of State has pointed out that the Government were not in the driving seat in relation to the surveillance, monitoring and development of GMOs. I hope that the agency will enable Ministers to be in the driving seat in future.
However, at the end of the day, the FSA will be judged by its actions—how quickly it reacts to the first food crisis or how it responds to media scares.
§ Mr. Paterson
What is the Liberal Democrat party's position on the Government's refusal to adopt the recommendation of the Food Standards Committee that the Meat Hygiene Service's executive direction should be set aside from the Food Standards Agency, so that, when the first meat scare occurs, the FSA's independence and integrity will be upheld?
§ Mr. Tyler
That is why the hon. Gentleman does not realise what happened. Perhaps he should wait until he has done so before he makes a contribution to the debate. The MHS was extensively opposed by Labour and Liberal Democrat spokesmen—including me—for reasons similar to those given by the hon. Gentleman. Unfortunately, the service has been shown to be a rather expensive and ineffective instrument of Government policy. I very much regret the apparent conflict that may well occur; I hope that we shall examine that matter in Committee.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am trying to come to a conclusion. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be successful in contributing to the debate later.
814 The quickness of the FSA's response to that first crisis—which will undoubtedly occur—will be extremely important. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating—especially regarding the FSA's response to the problems of imports from countries with quite different standards of supervision, regulation and welfare in production. That will be a test for the agency at an early stage.
We should be aiming to create a comparatively small strategic organisation that has great clarity of purpose and principle. Obviously, the local inspector will have to be the first point of contact for producers and processors. The industry must have confidence that such inspectors, whether from the Meat Hygiene Service or any other part of the new regime, will bring a high degree of professionalism, discretion and common sense to their work. As we all know, in the abattoirs at the moment, that is far from so. The inspectors are grossly overloading the operators.
This Bill comes to the House with some all-party support. Indeed, one would think from this afternoon that we had all invented it—some of us earlier than others. At least we can hope that bringing about a radical cultural change in the way in which the Government react to food issues will have many godparents. We should be confident that this baby, assuming that it has a healthy diet, will grow into the long-awaited legislative young body that could eventually become a very sturdy statute, fulfilling a long and useful life. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, we wish it every success.
§ Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)
I am delighted that the Government are establishing a Food Standards Agency. I pay tribute to the dedicated staff in my constituency who work on the difficult problems of BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The Bill is very welcome. It should silence the critics who said that such legislation would be buried or neutered. The key reason for establishing the Food Standards Agency is to rebuild consumer confidence in our farmers' produce and the food that we buy in our shops and markets.
I praise my right hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for their decision not to impose a levy to pay for this vital public service. They said that they would listen, and they have listened. The BSE crisis drove many retailers to the wall. For the excellent butchers in my constituency—many of the businesses have been in the family for generations—a levy would have been, not financially but certainly psychologically, the last straw.
Some items of the Bill require clarification. On several occasions, Ministers have said that they appreciate the importance of ensuring that the FSA board is independent from commercial vested interests, but that is not explicit in the Bill—welcome though clause 2 is. Some argue that the board ought to include representatives from a wide spectrum of interests, including consumers, farmers, the processing and retailing industry and, of course, science; but there is public concern that, when commercial interests intrude on policy making on food safety and standards, there is always a risk that the interests of the consumer will be subordinated to those of industry.
That is why there is a strong case for not putting direct representatives of the food industry on the board of the FSA. The Government of Ireland have adopted such a 815 model for their new food safety authority, which they want to earn widespread public support and trust. If the board includes people from industry, the clear principle that such representatives can never be in the majority must be established. Nothing less will restore public confidence in Government food policy.
The consultation document refers to nutrition, but the Bill does not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) said. Surely, whenever the terms "food safety" or "food standards" are used in the Bill, the words "and nutrition" should be inserted. That would ensure that the FSA undertakes a balanced approach to food policy—a vision suggested, indeed, in clause 6. Although nutrition will be part of the FSA's remit, the Bill fails to make clear exactly what is meant by "nutrition". The Bill should therefore be modified to clarify the sense in which the term "nutrition" is used and the FSA's responsibilities in respect of it.
§ Mr. Rooker
I am reluctant to intervene on my hon. Friend, but I might help to clarify the debate. In "The Food Standards Agency: a Force for Change", published in January 1998, about three dozen aspects of nutrition were set out. Some of them were designated as the exclusive remit of the Department of Health, some of the Food Standards Agency, and some of both. That remains the position. It is set out in substantial detail in three columns of the White Paper. That is exactly the way things will operate; there has been no change since the publication of the White Paper.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I greatly welcome the assurance that my hon. Friend has given me and the House. It will be widely welcomed elsewhere.
The House will be aware of important changes in recent months to the research capacities of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Central Science Laboratory in Norwich and the agricultural laboratory have been merged and are now based in York. I welcome the new agency's ability to commission research, as it can under clause 8, but it must have a substantial research budget in order to develop commissioning procedures different from those already used in MAFF.
As I understand it, the proposals envisage a research budget for the FSA of £25 million in the first year. However, that figure appears to have been derived from the portion of MAFF spending that has been ascribed to "food", rather than from an assessment of the requirements with which the FSA will be confronted. Obviously, we must wait and see what demands will be made on the new body, although I hope that that matter will be taken into account. The board of the FSA must have sufficient resources to enable it, if it wishes, to establish its own dedicated research facility.
The role of board members in directing and assessing the FSA's research agenda should be clarified in the Bill—certainly in Committee. I am worried that the FSA's integrity could be compromised by including the Meat Hygiene Service in its remit. If the FSA must set, monitor and enforce meat hygiene standards, there is a danger of undesirable compromises. In the face of the possible high costs of monitoring and enforcement, the new agency might be accused—probably unfairly—of watering down the standards that it sets in order to trim its budget. The responsibility for those two types of decision should 816 be separated. If I heard my right hon. Friend the Minister correctly, he identified another body—the Audit Commission—that would monitor such capacity. That is a welcome concession to concerns expressed in the Special Select Committee.
The Government could take advice from other Governments who have been through some of the same pain or who have avoided it by setting up their own agencies at an earlier stage. I think of the Swedish national food administration and, more recently, the Irish food safety authority. The Government should examine their entirely different methods of separating auditing and enforcement. The Swedes accomplish it through different local and national meat hygiene services; the Irish have retained their authority's integrity by making it responsible for setting standards, but have assigned responsibility for enforcement to local authorities. It is important that we learn the lessons from food agencies in other European Union countries and member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, such as Sweden, the United States of America, Germany, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.
We must not forget the limitations on our freedom to set standards that the World Trade Organisation and the EU have imposed. Following completion of the general agreement on tariffs and trade round, which is to be launched in November, there are likely to be new WTO-GATT rules in the area of food standards. It is therefore vital that the Government clarify the FSA's competencies and powers with regard to bodies such as the EU and the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
Importantly, the concordats that the FSA reaches with other agencies will show how it will function, yet the Bill has little to say about them. It would be preferable if the Bill stipulated that all the concordats be routinely published and openly scrutinised by Parliament. I believe that the Special Select Committee should be asked to review such concordats, together with the other workings of the FSA. Concordats should be published and scrutinised before being signed.
There was praise for the guiding principles of the FSA as set out in the consultation document, but I wonder why some of them were not expressed in the Bill; all should be. [Interruption.] If the Minister of State is giving me and the House that assurance, I am sure that we shall welcome it.
§ Mr. Rooker
I give an assurance to my hon. Friend and an apology to the House. Every single one of those guiding principles is in the Bill. The snag is that, between publication of the White Paper and the guiding principles in plain English and publication of the Bill, there was a thing called the lawyers. The guiding principles are in the Bill. I shall serve on the Committee and I shall be in a position to identify where every guiding principle is covered in the Bill.
§ Mr. Griffiths
That is another welcome statement from my hon. Friend. I am sure that those who serve on the Committee will relish his interpretation of the legal complications and language that have been substituted for the very plain English in the original consultation document.
§ Mr. Griffiths
Next and, I hope, finally, the regulation of all public health aspects of pesticides, veterinary 817 medicines and BSE should be transferred to the FSA. Agriculture policy on those issues should be made separately by agriculture divisions and directorates, but acting within a regulatory framework set by the FSA.
In introducing the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has done a great public service, for which United Kingdom consumers and producers will be immensely grateful. This Labour Government is establishing yet another landmark in legislation.
§ 7.2 pm
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
One of the few pleasures that I had after the general election two years ago was to listen to some of the speeches by the Minister of State.
Before the Minister has a panic attack, I assure him that I am not being facetious. I did have the pleasure of hearing him speak several times in the House, upstairs and before outside bodies, and it was wonderful to watch enlightenment dawn on him as he discovered that the officials in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the Pesticides Safety Directorate and all other parts of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were perhaps not—as he might have supposed when he was in opposition—autocratic and uncaring for public safety.
On various occasions, I heard the Minister vigorously defend the independence, neutrality, impartiality and integrity of his MAFF officials. I have mentioned only two directorates, but I am fairly certain that if I were to ask him to name any part of his Ministry or of the Department of Health where he thought the officials were not doing a proper job and protecting public health, he could not do so. I suspect that, in the past nine months, the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture have quickly discovered that the officials with whom they have the privilege of working in MAFF are conscientious, are all trying to do their bit to give Ministers proper and intelligent advice, and are not engaged in a ghastly conspiracy with producers, retailers or anyone else to cover up food safety scares.
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)
Surely the problem with the previous Government was that they received extremely good advice but ignored it.
§ Mr. Maclean
There is no truth in that whatsoever. We have the Minister of State's word for it, because there is an extract from Hansard which I keep in files close by me. It relates to the BSE situation. The Minister of State, defending the ban on beef on the bone, said that if Ministers had not implemented the beef on the bone ban, this would be the first occasion "in living memory" when Ministers had not followed the advice of their officials.
I believe that the only time I refused to follow the advice of my officials was towards Christmas one year, when I was asked to advise the housewife on how to stuff the turkey. I concluded that it would be unwise for me to issue that advice, because it would be patronising and insulting.
§ Mr. Rooker
I shall not argue over quotes from Hansard, but I know what I said that night. I said that it 818 would have been the first occasion when Ministers had knowingly allowed BSE infectivity into the food chain:We will not be the first Government knowingly to put infectivity in the food chain."—[Official Report, 19 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 1400.]Later, I added:The House should think about what the headlines would have been had we been the first Government knowingly to allow BSE infectivity into the food chain."—[Official Report, 30 April 1998; Vol. 311, c. 445.]I am not saying that the previous Government did it the other way round, but they certainly went in unknowingly.
§ Mr. Maclean
That too is open to challenge. We may have to wait many months—or, at the present rate of progress, many years—before the inquiry reaches a conclusion on it.
However, I shall not conduct an argument along that route because I think that the Minister would still acknowledge that the advice that Ministers receive from officials is of the highest calibre, and that it did not suddenly change on 1 May 1997. I do not believe that officials gave Ministers in the previous Government duff advice and then thought, "My God—change of Government. We had better start giving proper advice." I make that point because the Minister of Agriculture said today that the new agency would do essentially what is being done now. I believe that that is exactly so.
I do not therefore say that the new agency will be merely cosmetic, but I see nothing fundamentally different about the research that the new agency will do, the advice that it will give, the problems that it will wrestle with and the difficulty of trying to explain the balance of risk to the public. The new agency will do nothing that officials in various directorates and divisions of MAFF and in the Department of Health are not currently doing.
What, then, is the purpose of the new agency? Probably, if the Labour manifesto had not promised to set up the agency, Ministers, with two years' experience of working with those Departments, would not now be promising one. But that is mere speculation. They have made the promise; they intend to deliver on it.
However, I envisage some of the effect of the agency as merely cosmetic: it will be to give the appearance that Ministers are being distanced from food safety decisions. The sole purpose of trying to institute the arm's length procedure is to try to give a new credibility to ministerial advice or advice from learned scientists on food safety.
The public have become entirely cynical about advice, whether it is on road safety matters from experts, whether it is from my friends down the road in Sellafield advising about nuclear safety, or whether it is from food scientists. There is a highly sceptical public—backed by an even more sceptical media, certain sections of which have a financial interest in keeping the public alarmed all the time. The public may not be reassured about the advice that the new agency gives.
I am worried that the agency might fail in some respects. It will fail not because it will deliberately endanger public health, because it will take ridiculous risks, or because it will be in a conspiracy with food producers to cover things up, but because it will not reach the high level of public expectation.
819 I have been reading a survey conducted by the Consumers Association. It welcomes publication of the draft Bill, as many other organisations have done. They have done so because they hope that it will be a brave new dawn—that the day the agency takes over, the "meeja", the press and the public will believe everything that it says about the high quality of our food. However, the Consumers Association said that its survey showed that the public's expectation of the FSA was unreasonably high. Ninety-seven per cent. of the people questioned wanted a guarantee from the FSA that food was safe. Of course people want that guarantee. They can never have it, under any Government or any agency, no matter whether the agency is stuffed with a million Philip Jameses or a million representatives of the food companies. It can never give that absolute guarantee.
My concern is that on the first occasion when there is a food safety problem, small or large, or when the Food Standards Agency has to say, "Well, we don't really know. It may be a new strain of cambylobacter. To err on the side of safety, perhaps we should withdraw some products, but we are not going to ban the lot," the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the others will say that the agency has failed—it did not clear the shelves and Ministers must intervene.
I see wry smiles on the faces of the Ministers. They know, and the House may admit, that on this occasion I may be right. The expectation that the agency will be a miracle cure-all for the problems of food safety is illogical. I understand the Government's difficulty. They cannot admit that the agency will not meet the public's expectations. They must present the agency as the fulfilment of an important manifesto pledge, and say that the wonderful new agency will do new things. The only new thing seems to be that it will publish ministerial advice. We did not do that—we published its effect and synthesised it into a more easily intelligible and readable leaflet.
The most difficult aspect of dealing with food standards, from my experience, is trying to explain risk. The problem is that in our daily lives we are all happy to take some voluntary risks. We all know about crossing the road—the risks are enormous, compared to the risk of dying from a food-borne illness. We take a huge range of risks and care nothing about them. As a Cumbrian Member of Parliament, I know that the number of people who die in the Cumbrian mountains each year is extraordinary by comparison with the number of people who participate in such sports, and high in relation to other types of accident; yet no one proposes to take drastic action to limit that activity.
When it comes to other risks, we have a very high expectation, for example, that food will be absolutely safe. We want someone out there to guarantee that we will not be subject to the slightest risk. That is an entirely illogical and unreasonable expectation, with which I wrestled as a Minister. I was not successful in trying to explain the balance of risk.
§ Ms Keeble
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that people who go walking in his area are usually fit, and that they are adults? Those who might eat contaminated food 820 include small babies, and the consequences could be catastrophic. It is wrong to contrast the two examples in such an unfavourable light.
§ Mr. Maclean
The hon. Lady misunderstands my point. I used walking in the mountains as an example of risk, but I could have used dozens of other examples of risk that all of us, young and old alike, are willing to take. However, there are certain risks that we are not prepared to take, and we expect someone in authority—society, the Government, "them"—to do something about it and guarantee our absolute safety.
One of those risks relates to food. There is a public expectation and a media expectation that all food, at all times and in all circumstances, will be safe, no matter how incompetently we may deal with it in our own home. I take issue with the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who intervened in the Minister's speech to suggest that intensive animal production was responsible for many of the present food safety problems. That is nonsense. As someone who has seen where free range eggs have lain and what they have lain in, I would never dream of eating one in a hundred years. I would prefer the battery version, purely on a food safety basis. That is quite different from animal welfare.
It is nonsense to suggest that such farm practices are responsible for the increase in salmonella and some of the other forms of food poisoning. We need to look at our food preparation practices and our sloppy handling of food.
I want to make a couple of other points, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before you cut me off. The first concerns the appointment of independents. If Ministers can find someone who is genuinely independent, I shall be the first to stand up in the House and praise them, but I would bet that I could go through every appointment that they make to the board and say, "Aha! At some time that independent professor of nutrition or food science had a contract with Nestlé or some other company."
No one who is any good in food safety or scientific work has not at some time worked for a commercial company, the Consumers Association, the Rowett research institute or some such body. There is probably no one who is any good who has not published a pamphlet or leaflet on food safety, or his own theory, which some may perceive to be biased, on some aspect of food.
We do not want a futile search for people who are genuinely independent to serve on the board. If the Minister finds people who have never worked for a food company or a research organisation, they will be so dashed useless that they should not be on the board. We are looking for people who have a wide range of experience, but who do not have bees under their bonnet any more. If the Minister appointed someone from a research institution—even Professor James—and if he still had a bee in his bonnet about nutrition, I would not consider him independent. If he appointed the director of a food company who had a bee in his bonnet about stuffing more salt into food, I would not consider him independent.
The Minister must search for people who come from varied food backgrounds—food production, farming, processing, research, Government or academia. He must find those who can leave aside their personal interests—having declared them all, of course—and who do not have bees in their bonnet or preconceptions.
821 My other concern relates to nutrition. I fear that the agency will become too much of a nagging nanny on nutritional aspects. In that case, it is just as well that Government are putting it at arm's length, so that Ministers can dissociate themselves from the advice that it will give.
In the two years I was Food Minister, most of the expert advice that I issued, based on nutrition advice about red wine, olive oil, salt and sugar, was contradicted a few years later by the same scientist or others. I was told, "Minister, you must advise the whole country to move to a Mediterranean diet." "Very good," I said, "lots more red wine." "Oh no," they said, "eating oily fish." I replied, "Surely the other half is drinking red wine?" We must have balance in our diets.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on one point. If we are to tackle nutritional aspects, let us not start banning individual foods. Let us not tackle food first. Let us tackle the fact that we are too dashed idle. We do not exercise enough, and we need to deal with the problems of obesity and fitness before we start dealing with food.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I approach Second Reading from the point of view of someone who chaired the Special Select Committee that considered the original draft legislation, as opposed to considering the Bill in its present form, which has changed greatly since we took it into Committee earlier this year. On 8 February, the House gave us responsibility for examining the draft legislation and reporting back to the House by 31 March. Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that we thought that that was a tight timetable, as Ministers have recognised.
The Committee was drawn primarily from the Select Committee on Agriculture and the Select Committee on Health, with additional members from the parts of the United Kingdom to whose Parliament or Assembly power is being devolved. That power will include responsibility for food safety, and was one of the aspects that we considered.
From the outset we were joined, at our request, by officials of the joint food safety and standards group who had been working on the issue for many years and whom the Minister described earlier as the embryo of the Food Standards Agency, if it comes into being. We said in our report that we thought that their presence in the Room was a great strength, because we were able to question them on matters that arose when we were taking evidence from witnesses. That enabled us to clarify a situation without having to contact those witnesses by letter or some other means at a later stage. As the Chairman of the Committee it was interesting to see the expressions on those officials' faces when I asked for clarification of evidence on a couple of occasions.
I shall run through some of the matters that we looked at in detail, and on which we made recommendations, and the Government's response. Although the report was produced quickly to meet the timetable, it was detailed, 822 as was the response. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) was absolutely right to discuss the membership of the Food Standards Agency. It is nonsense to say that people with no interest in the issues could be appointed; they will all have had an interest in an industry or in research.
The essential assurance that we got from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was that people will sit on the FSA as individuals, not as representatives of producers, consumers or anybody else. He said at the beginning of the debate that the Government want to strike a reasonable balance. They are absolutely right about that. The House and the country could not want for anything more than a reasonable balance and the appointment of individuals with opinions that have not been bought or distorted by what they have done in the past.
We also looked at health promotion, nutrition and labelling and the remit for nutrition and dietary advice. We have made some strong recommendations, and the Government have said that they have taken them on board and will consider the role of nutrition and dietary advice. In the general context, the Health Departments that now operate in different parts of the United Kingdom, which have wider responsibilities, are likely to pull together the aspects connected with public health. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border rightly said that that involves not only diet, but life style, exercise and many other things. It would be wrong to think that the Food Standards Agency could handle all that, but it could give good, clear guidelines to other organisations responsible for public health.
We also looked at labelling, and voluntary codes of practice are currently being established. I am sorry that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) considered labelling only in terms of where food comes from; country of origin is important, but so are the contents. It is hard for consumers to work out exactly what percentage of fat an item contains. Normally, labels say that 100 g of a food contains certain percentages of X, Y and Z, but do not provide the percentage of fat in a given item chosen by the shopper. On occasions, people have to get a calculator out to work out exactly what they are purchasing. That area of the industry is driven by a European Union directive and the Government have said in their response to our report that the agency would be responsible for that matter, that it should make it a priority and that it should instigate action on labelling.
I should like clarification on how food advertising could mislead people into thinking that they were eating something healthy. Companies do not advertise a product as unhealthy, so they assure people that they are eating something healthy even though that may not be the case. Will the agency give evidence to the Advertising Standards Authority, for example, so that it will be able to decide whether such advertising is taking place? The Government said in their reply that the agency would work with other bodies, but they were not specific in respect of what the Committee asked.
On enforcement and monitoring, we made a recommendation on seconding people from local government who are responsible for day-to-day enforcement. I am pleased that the Government have accepted it. Those people would not represent a new army of food thought police, as has been suggested; they are people who are already working in our communities.
823 What type of contact should they have? How can the agency learn from their experience of enforcement in the community? The other side of the coin concerns the agency taking some responsibility for setting training standards for enforcement staff so that we can achieve more consistency. The Government have again responded positively by saying that the agency will do just that.
I have read the previous Agriculture Committee report on food standards and looked at evidence that has been submitted to different Committees of the House, and enforcement at local level differs from one local authority to another. That should concern us all and we should make sure that we work on such differences. Indicators are used to gauge whether auditing and monitoring is conducted properly by local authorities. Currently, such work tends to be carried out mechanistically—for example, the number of local authority visits made to food retail premises—and that is not necessarily a good way of working.
The Committee also considered output. The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) asked whether we should start reporting more food poisoning cases, but most people would say that there is probably more food poisoning in this country than is reported and that if we improved our reporting everybody would become alarmed. Although output is important, it is not the only issue.
The Committee recommended multidisciplinary indicators and I am pleased that the Government have taken that suggestion on board. I sat down with my local authority and asked it how it works. It classifies risk from A to D; food outlets in band A are high risk and those in band D are low risk. We do not want authorities to say, "We have done two dozen visits this week, but they were all to band D establishments", because that would mean that high-risk establishments had been missed. In response to our suggestion, the Government have said that assessment under a national scheme will be qualitative as well as quantitative.
The Meat Hygiene Service has been mentioned several times. The Committee said:We feel that on balance the best interests of the public would be served by retaining the management of the MHS outside the Agency.If the Government does not accept this recommendation, then the onus is on the Government to establish a structure which clearly separates these powers within the Agency.My right hon. Friend the Minister said today that that is exactly what the Government will do, and they said in their response:Within this framework, the Government does intend to separate the audit function in relation to the MHS from its day-to-day operation.Perhaps the Committee should have highlighted the fact that we think that it would be a good idea to carry out an independent review after two years of how the Meat Hygiene Service has operated inside the Food Standards Agency. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate I should like him to say whether he thinks that that is a good idea. Perhaps we should have put that recommendation on paper; nevertheless, it should be taken into account.
On the general issue of openness and accountability, as Chairman of the Committee, I am happy with what the Government have said. The draft Bill referred to safeguarding national security, which intrigued us— 824 we want accountability and openness to give consumers confidence in food in this country and to make the agency work. We took evidence and got the national security issues down to bacteriological terrorism or radioactive-contaminated sheep. We had not got down to vegetables of mass destruction, but nevertheless we were concerned that issues of national security would be covered by the Bill.
To the Government's credit, they have taken that responsibility out of the Bill. They say in response to our concerns that matters of national security must be taken into account in all legislation, and that is absolutely true, but all members of the Select Committee found that concept a little difficult in respect of this Bill. Perhaps it is a habit of Whitehall, rather than of politicians, to include issues of national security in legislation, but I am pleased that the Government have taken them out of the Bill.
The other issue that I want to raise is the advice given by expert committees. We looked at two committees in particular: the Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy Committee; and the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food. The agency will be responsible for monitoring those committees' activities; it will not subsume them. It will thereby get a wider picture of the food chain, which is also important.
I should like to think that we can claim a victory for having removed the levy proposed in the original legislation. The Select Committee did not recommend losing it completely, but pointed out the unjustness of the Government's proposal in relation to the flat-rate levy. Most people thought that it was not too damaging at £94 a year when it applied to start-up costs, but once it had to cover running costs followed by enforcement costs, which could have run to a much higher figure, they were concerned that that levy would increase. I am pleased that the Government listened to all sides, including hon. Members, and decided that the levy would be taken out of the Bill altogether. That is a great improvement. I am only sorry that I did not recommend it to the Select Committee in the final hours of our proceedings. On a personal note, the reason that I did not do so is that enforcement is rather like a patchwork quilt and I thought that if money was being raised for enforcement, it would at least be spent on that. Given what the Government said in response to many of our detailed points about enforcement and monitoring, I am confident that we can do that via the Exchequer. I once heard somebody say—not in formal evidence—that enforcement should be paid for by those with the biggest turnover. Given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has the biggest turnover in the UK, he should be the one to pay, as he has now agreed.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned Select Committees. I accept that this is a matter for the House, not for Ministers. Given that this legislation will be the responsibility of the Department of Health, it should be considered by the Select Committee on Health. We also said that the House should consider convening a bigger Health Committee, which could split into a Sub-Committee that could look at food standards along with public health issues. That, however, will be a matter for the Department.
825 From our point of view as legislators, this exercise has been good. We have produced a unanimous report. Although not everybody has read it yet—
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) because it gives me an opportunity to express the gratitude of the House for the work that his Select Committee has done on this important issue. It has been a good example to the House of how a Select Committee can be used constructively in advance of a Bill coming before the House and then proceeding to Committee. We should all be grateful to the Select Committee for that.
I preface my remarks by declaring my interest in the food industry, as listed in the Register of Members' Interests. I recall almost 10 years ago welcoming the Food Safety Act 1990. I was rash enough to go on record as saying that there was nothing in that Act to which any bona fide trader could possibly take exception. I had underestimated the scale of the powers that the Government had taken in that Act, which enabled them to do all sorts of things which many Back Benchers had not envisaged at the time. Therefore, I approach this debate having been once bitten; I am now twice shy.
Had I known that the immediate consequence of the 1990 Act was that enforcement officers would descend on the kitchens of so many farmers' wives in my constituency, forcing them completely to revamp their kitchens, unnecessarily in many cases, so that they could be permitted to continue to take bed and breakfast guests, I would have taken a different attitude and spoken up against the Bill. I am concerned about this Bill because, once again, the Government are taking extremely wide powers.
None the less, the Bill has the potential to do some good. Many aspects of it appear benign, but others are seriously worrying. Those include the power to enable the Food Standards Agency to become an enforcement agency, thereby potentially creating a food hygiene enforcement agency. Perhaps that is the forerunner of what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) called the hygiene police.
My concerns are twofold: I am concerned, first, that the Government are taking powers that they do not need and, secondly, that they are compromising some of the potential to do good by getting involved in enforcement. On my first concern, one is reminded, even today on the radio, of the need that the Government have defined to cut down on regulation. The Minister will be well aware of what the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said on that subject. The Government also say that they do not intend to centralise—indeed, they say that they want to decentralise—but that argues against the Food Standards Agency taking enforcement powers that should remain with local authorities.
I am not alone in expressing concern that an unelected agency will have potentially huge powers over elected local authorities. Clause 21 says: 826The Agency has power to do anything".It is extraordinary to state in a Bill that the Government give themselves powers to do anything. The Minister will doubtless come to the Dispatch Box later and justify that statement, but it is a pretty tall order. When he does so, will he explain why the Government think that they have to take all those powers at this stage to deal with the perceived problem?
This is where we get ourselves into a terrible tangle. It is no good the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry complaining about over-regulation, too much legislation and so on if Ministers of State take such draconian powers, for which there is no justification. Clause 32 permits changes of functions, powers and the constitution of the Food Standards Agency, not by coming to this House with a new Bill, but simply by Orders in Council. Again, one questions why the Government feel that it is so important to take all those powers without feeling it necessary to come to the House and formally seek extra powers through an additional Bill.
As an aside, may I suggest to the Minister that the civil servants may be harnessing the public concern that undoubtedly exists about food safety to take powers that they would like to see because it is administratively convenient to them to have a whole galaxy of powers, used or unused, to which they can resort at some stage in the future? It is always open to the Government to come back for additional powers. What is more to the point, it is no part of my function as a Back Bencher and it is not the role of Parliament to give the Executive carte blanche on this or any other subject.
My other concern is that the potential of the Bill to do good is compromised. Clause 7 gives the Food Standards Agency powers to advise, inform and help; clause 8 gives it powers to obtain, compile and keep information; clause 10 enables it to carry out observations; and clause 12 allows it to monitor the performance of enforcement authorities. That sounds innocuous, and I do not think that any hon. Member would take objection to that. However, when we come to schedule 3 the mask falls, and we see that the Government are increasing their powers over and above what many of us believe is necessary. We have to read page 37 of the explanatory notes to discover that the Meat Hygiene Service, which is an enforcement agency, will become part of the Food Standards Agency.
I shall be a little critical of the Minister, because it was disingenuous of him to make so much of the motherhood and apple pie aspects of the Bill in his opening remarks. It was only after questioning by me that he revealed that the FSA will be in the business of enforcement. He confessed that the Meat Hygiene Service will come under the direct aegis of the FSA.
I shall make a few important points about bringing the enforcement agency inside the FSA, which most of us would have preferred to be a monitoring and advisory body without enforcement responsibilities. In carrying out its enforcement responsibilities, the Meat Hygiene service has taken several cases to court that it has lost—that is a matter or fact, and is on the record. Many people in the industry felt that those cases were bogus, but nevertheless the Meat Hygiene Service, in a rather high-handed manner, took various traders to court, and in many cases it lost. That brings the MHS into disrepute, and I shall show how I believe embodying or embracing that 827 enforcement agency in the FSA risks bringing the FSA into disrepute. There is a real danger that the credibility of the new body will be compromised even before it has hardly started.
Yesterday, by coincidence I met and talked to the owner of an abattoir in Shropshire. The vet had made various criticisms of the operation of the abattoir. He had thought that two carcases were bovine when they were in fact porcine. The vet had examined two pig carcases and castigated the abattoir owner for not having split the carcases so that the spinal column could be removed. I believe my informant, because I have known this man all my life, and I know that he was telling me the truth. We have all heard that story from other sources anyway.
I fear that, if the Meat Hygiene Service becomes closely connected with the Food Standards Agency, as the Bill proposes, the FSA will become the focus for the opprobrium and ridicule that currently accompanies the MHS.
There is a catalogue of enforcement agency failures above and beyond those for which the Meat Hygiene Service is responsible. I particularly instance the E. coli outbreak in Lanarkshire, where the sheriff concluded that the enforcement authorities had failed to do their bit. The question that hangs in the air is whether that outbreak would have occurred had the enforcement authorities been doing their job as they should have been. That begs the question whether we need a Food Standards Agency as well as the enforcement authorities if there is a dramatic improvement in certain aspects of their actions.
I believe that taking powers to act as an enforcement agency, as the Bill proposes, will undermine the impartiality and the integrity of the FSA. It should confine itself to setting and monitoring standards. Furthermore, how can local authorities trust an agency that is setting and monitoring standards, and can take over from local authorities those same duties and responsibilities? The proposal for the FSA to be the enforcement agency is contrary to the Government's stated aims and objectives. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will seek to remedy those deficiencies by tabling appropriate, sensible, practical and well-informed amendments in Committee.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) warned of the risk of failure because expectations of what the FSA can achieve are being raised. He was right that no one, not even the scientists, will say that anything and everything is safe. It is hypocritical of the Government to say that, if the risk is infinitesimal, genetically modified foods should be allowed on to the market, whereas when they were in opposition they pilloried the Conservative Government, who would not say that beef was 100 per cent. safe. The Conservative Government could not have said that, and the Government know that. It is total hypocrisy for the Government to go on raking over the coals of BSE when they know that their criticism and their continued insistence on beef being proved to be 100 per cent. safe had an adverse effect.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border is right that there is a real risk that expectations are being built up too high. I urge the Government to accept amendments in Committee to improve the FSA's prospects of success.
§ Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)
I welcome the Bill, and I am glad to be able to take part in this important debate. The Bill is of significance to the people of the United Kingdom, but more importantly, the people whom I represent have looked forward to it with great emotion.
On Sunday 17 November 1996, a frightening blight descended on the town of Wishaw when 85 elderly people attended a lunch in Wishaw old parish church hall. It is an ordinary church hall in an ordinary town, and the lunch was attended by ordinary men and women. Nothing remained ordinary in Wishaw in the following harrowing days, weeks and months. For many families, nothing would be the same again.
A well-known and respected butcher supplied two bags of beef stew, some pastry tops and raw meat for soup to the church hall the day before the lunch. In the following days, 45 of the 87 luncheon guests suffered severe symptoms of gastric disorder. The bacterium E. coli 0157 claimed the lives of eight of the elderly church-goers, and the outbreak spread throughout the towns and villages in central Scotland to which a small, family-run Wishaw butcher supplied cooked and raw meats.
A batch of the meat became cross-contaminated and, whenever it was served as a main hot meal or in sandwiches, cut down elderly people who were too frail to fight the deadly bacterium. In Bankview nursing home, in Bonnyrigg in central Scotland, five elderly residents were infected with, and died of, E. coli 0157. The strain of the organism that attacked the nursing home was the same as the strain that was allowed to manifest itself in the Wishaw butcher's shop in Lanarkshire.
The outbreak would eventually leave 22 people dead. Two of them—Mary Smith, aged 90, and Anthony Smith, aged 95—were my near neighbours, living in the same street as me. They were a lovely old couple, who did not deserve the excruciating death that befell them and left their family traumatised. Mrs. Smith was already dying in Monklands hospital in Airdrie as a result of the outbreak when Mr. Smith was diagnosed as having pneumonia, but he had eaten the same food as his wife, and he died 10 days before her. To this day, the family have no doubt that he was the unaccounted-for 22nd victim.
E. coli 0157 left 13 people with permanent kidney damage and 151 people hospitalised; 373 cases were confirmed, and more than 500 people were affected in Lanarkshire and central Scotland. The ordinary church lunch, the ordinary nursing home snack, the ordinary 18th birthday party buffet and the ordinary weekly shopping—all of them contained a dark bacterium, ready to strike the fragile, the elderly and the young alike. Once that bacterium took hold, there was little warning that could help many of its victims.
There are other reasons to welcome the establishment of this truly independent Food Standards Agency. As our eating, cooking and food-purchasing habits change, so does the scale of food poisoning throughout the United Kingdom. From remarkable figures obtained from the House of Commons Library, I note that in Scotland, 4,525 cases of food poisoning were notified by GPs in 1982. By 1998, the figure had risen by 100 per cent. to 9,054. In England and Wales, the statistics are even more frightening. In 1982, 14,253 cases were reported, and last 829 year, the figure had risen to 93,366. That is an increase of 555 per cent. More than 100,000 cases of food poisoning have been reported by our GPs in the last 12 months alone. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that those are truly frightening statistics, which urgently need to be addressed.
At this point, I intended to discuss the proposed £90 levy on food retailers that was to fund the Food Standards Agency, but clause 39 now ensures that our Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies will be the paymasters. We have heard a great deal from the food industry about the imposition of a "food poll tax", but a levy of 30p a day would amount to less than the price of two sausages, half a pint of milk or two forkfuls of stewing steak for a family-run butcher's shop in Wishaw. If such a levy is considered excessive, some of those in the food sector have their priorities wrong. E. coli, campylobacter and salmonella do not recognise the size of the profit-and-loss account of a food retailer or caterer.
I am truly sorry that some people consider 30p too high a price for all retailers and caterers to pay to ensure that the products they sell are safe for human consumption. If 30p a day is the difference between some businesses' operating and closing down, I seriously ask where else they may be tempted to cut costs and hygiene practices. Alas, clause 39 ensures that the taxpayer will be responsible for an agency whose establishment has been necessitated by the bad habits that have accumulated in the food sector.
Professor Hugh Pennington, who was commissioned to report on the E. coli 0157 outbreak, gave evidence to the Food Standards Committee at its hearing on 24 February 1999. Interestingly, he opined that the agencywill achieve the aim of being independent, giving consumer confidence in the food chain".He said that it wouldbe needed to control the E. Coli organism in farm animals",and wouldbe able to scrutinise food preparation practices in even the smallest shop.Above all, Professor Pennington said that he believed that a food standards agency could have prevented the outbreaks in my constituency and throughout central Scotland.
If that is not a good enough reason for me to ask every Member to support the new agency, the House should remember the other 22 reasons that I gave earlier. There are the Wishaw old parish church luncheon guests: Harry Shaw, Sarah Cameron, Josephine Foster, Alexander Gardiner, James Henderson, Mary Jackson, Jessie Rogerson and Herbert Swanston. There are the Bankview nursing home residents: Helen Fraser, Alexander Nicol, Mary Paisley, Lilly Scott and Catherine Aitken. And there are the remaining eight victims: Edward Laverty, Marian Muir, Rachel O'Malley, Joan Blackwood, Arthur Smith, Annie Criggie, Christina Wright, and Mary and Anthony Smith.
Those were all ordinary elderly people, just the same as the elderly people all hon. Members represent. They were all much loved, and are still sorely missed. Their families deserve at least to know that what happened to 830 their relations has not been forgotten, and that what they suffered may not happen to others when a food standards agency is finally introduced under this Labour Government.
E. Coli 0157 first struck in my constituency in November 1996. In March 1997, Professor Philip James, director of the Rowett research institute in Aberdeen, was asked by the Prime Minister to prepare a report setting out the proposed blueprint for a food standards agency. The James report was published on 7 May 1997. A White Paper was launched on 14 January 1998, a draft Bill was presented to the House on 27 January 1999 and an ad hoc Food Standards Select Committee was set up on 8 February 1999, reporting on 31 March.
Now is the time for all hon. Members finally to act to make our food chain the safest in the world. My constituents have waited long enough for a food standards agency—a truly independent agency, which will put the safety of the consumer at the top of its "safer shopping list". At last, we have safety from the plough to the plate.
Let me end by reminding the House that the outbreak happened in an ordinary town, in an ordinary church hall and at an ordinary lunch—but for all who were present, life would never be the same again. The House owes something to those pensioners. In a letter to me, Mrs. Sharon McKellar, the grand-daughter of old Mr. and Mrs. Smith, wrote:Wouldn't it be a fitting tribute to our loved ones if this agency was set up and given wide ranging powers to ensure that nothing like the E. coli outbreak ever happens again".I ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to remember those words, and I thank them for the courtesy of listening to that plea.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) on his speech, and on the way in which he described so graphically the tragic occurrence in his constituency. However, he was wrong to draw the conclusion that the tragedy could have been avoided if an "independent food standards agency", as he called it, had been established. If he will recall, the sheriff who investigated the matter found that it was caused by a failure of local enforcement and not of wider policy.
The problem—as my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) said—is that Conservative Members do not believe that the Food Standards Agency will be truly independent. Nothing in the Bill itself says that the agency will be independent; indeed, the Bill describes the very close ties that the agency will have with Ministers. I suspect that, should there be another food crisis—such as the one in the constituency of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw—or another food scare, the buck will come straight back to Ministers, with newspapers demanding action by Ministers and not by the Food Standards Agency.
I was interested to hear the Minister of State say that the Bill was a very clear one until the lawyers got hold of it.
§ Mr. Atkinson
831 Nevertheless, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, I read the Bill. The major point on the agency's independence is dealt with in schedule 4, under "Minor and consequential amendments". The explanatory memorandum—and schedule 4—states quite clearly that the Billprovides for the Secretary of State to direct that a duty imposed on an enforcement body under the Act should instead be discharged by himself'meaning the Secretary of State for Health or the Minister of Agriculture. It also provides forthe agency to be one of the bodies which may be named as an enforcement body in regulations made under section 6of the Act.
There we have a clear statement—absolutely in black and white, tucked away at the very back the Bill—that Ministers are taking to themselves powers to direct the agency. The Food Standards Agency will not be an independent agency or a replica of the American Food and Drug Administration, as it has been touted to be.
§ Mr. Rooker
I shall do my best to respond to those points, both in my reply and in Committee. However, we have made it quite clear that the agency will be a non-ministerial Department, giving it the same legal status as Customs and Excise. In other words, it will work at an arm's-length distance from ministerial daily control. Moreover, ultimately and crucially, it will be accountable to the House. The agency will, therefore, not be able to write its own agenda—which is partly why its guiding principles have been enshrined in the Bill.
§ Mr. Atkinson
The Minister was right to say that the agency will be like Customs and Excise—perhaps more so—as that body is not independent. The Food Standards Agency should not be proclaimed to be an independent agency, such as the American Food and Drug Administration—which receives United States Government funding, although it has no direct link to Ministers, as our agency will have.
The difference between the agency and Customs and Excise is that a Minister will have the power to direct thata duty imposed on an enforcement body"—which is the agency—should be discharged by himself'.That will impose even greater ministerial control over the agency than Ministers currently have over Customs and Excise.
The Bill is also opaque—although we have heard much talk in the debate about transparency—because of the way in which it has been drafted. Only when we do some digging do we begin to discover the huge powers that the Bill will give to Ministers to take over from local authorities.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow that the Bill's real weakness—which I urge Ministers to consider before it is considered in Committee—was created with the decision to put the Meat Hygiene Service under the agency's control. That decision also created the need for the paragraphs in schedule 4, which give Ministers the power to run the Meat Hygiene Service—which will be seen as both judge and jury by those who have to deal with it. The decision is a great mistake, as it will compromise such independence as the agency should have.
832 In his normal way, the Minister of Agriculture was suitably inscrutable in answering questions from Labour Back Benchers about precisely where the Food Standards Agency will start and stop. I realise that the agency is to do with food safety and with food standards, but I do not understand whether that will include, for example, welfare. The Minister was asked about animal welfare, but my impression—I shall have to read tomorrow's Hansard a bit more carefully—was that he did not answer the question.
I do not believe that the Food Standards Agency will be able to deal with welfare issues, or that it will have any influence on whether a British company buys Danish pork that is produced less satisfactorily than British pork, or on whether much of the chicken entering the United Kingdom from Thailand has been produced in what we would consider to be an inhumane way. I do not believe that the agency will have any remit to interfere with that trade, providing that the chicken meat arriving in the UK is considered safe.
There is obscurity also in relation to genetic modification. Will the agency have any discretion in how it deals with genetically modified foods? If genetically modified soya beans imported from the United States are considered safe—as they have been—by the American Food and Drug Administration, they will almost certainly be considered safe, for food safety purposes, by the Food Standards Agency. If the agency is at all independent, it will have to consider them safe.
Conservative Members' arguments about genetic modification are not necessarily about the safety of altered soya beans or maize products, but about the environmental impact of those crops—about which the Food Standards Agency will have absolutely no say. Therefore, on that issue—which is of singular importance to people—the Food Standards Agency will receive a battering, but will not be able to act.
As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, there will also be a temptation for the agency to become a busy-body and nannying agency. There is also a threat that it will prevent those who still like to consume green-top milk and unpasteurised cheese from being able to continue doing something that they have done for a very long time.
I congratulate the Minister on taking the decision to abolish the levy. The so-called £90 tax on small shops was enormously controversial in my rural constituency, in which one or two small shops are surviving. In only a few days, in a small country town, one of my small shopkeepers—our local, well-respected fishmonger—collected 1,000 signatures on the matter. I am therefore glad to congratulate the Minister on bowing to the political inevitability of taking that decision. I am also pleased that at least one Minister has not lost his head on farm politics, as so many of his colleagues have done recently.
§ 8.8 pm
§ Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)
I warmly welcome the Bill as an important step in improving United Kingdom food safety and nutritional standards. However, I should like to focus on only one of its specific aspects—about which we have heard some comment today—which is the concept of risk, as that concept is applied in the Bill.
833 The first thing to say is that we are largely ignorant about the true state of food safety in the United Kingdom, as the data are incomplete, and we have much evidence of under-reporting. The Bill provides for increased powers to increase reporting by responsible authorities, and that provision is clearly necessary.
The information that is available is extremely hard to interpret. The classic example of that is regional discrepancies in food poisoning across the United Kingdom. Generally, Northern Ireland has much lower levels of food poisoning than other areas. Scotland used to have a much higher level of food poisoning, although the latest statistics showed that that was not true at least for last year. It is also hard to interpret the data and reach a reasonable judgment on what is happening.
We also know painfully little about international comparisons on food safety. On the Agriculture Committee's visit to the United States, it became quite evident that there was much greater confidence in the United States in the various forms of agency involved in enforcing food safety and food standards. When one looked at the limited data available, one found little evidence for such confidence. There had been large-scale outbreaks of food poisoning, which would have caused great concern had they been repeated in this country.
We know little about the relative risks of the processes through the food chain from plough to plate. Without that, it is hard to decide where we should allocate resources. One of the key tasks of the agency will be to decide on the level of inspection and research to provide us with the answers. Thus far, we know very little about the precise point at which risk occurs most clearly.
We know intuitively that the risk of poor diet balance is far greater than the risk of food poisoning. Clearly, this issue will have to be weighed when the agency considers how to allocate its tasks and the weight of its responsibilities. The agency's role in addressing the balance of diet is welcome, but I shall not dwell on that issue this evening. We need far greater knowledge, and the agency has an extremely demanding task ahead of it in gathering that knowledge.
The agency must act proportionately to the risk, to the processes that are being studied and to the various sizes of business in this country. In that context, I welcome the dropping of the blanket charges to be levied by the agency. That is commendable. However, I retain the germ of a concern. I have often thought that when Britain lost an empire, it had to find roles for those trained in producing rules and close governance. We have heard of the lack of relationship between the quantity of regulation and the sought-for outcome in this matter.
The previous 10 years have seen an increase in concern and an increase in Government response, in terms of the amount of work and paper put into the task. One must say also that they have shown no evidence of a reduction in the quantity of food poisoning outbreaks. That gives some doubt to the idea that mere regulation is the solution to our problems.
On proportionality, it would be extremely easy for the agency to crush small food enterprises with intrusive regulations, and to become an obstruction to consumer choice. Other hon. Members have referred to the case of 834 the specialist cheese manufacturer who was tackled with an emergency control order, which effectively put the business out of action entirely. Many have argued that that was a disproportionate use of a power to respond to a genuine health issue. We must recognise the need for proportionality of response and respect for small food-producing enterprises.
Large producers with complex handling processes and long supply chains must, by their nature, carry greater risk than small producers with largely local supply chains and local customer bases. The closure of small enterprises may increase risks by elongating journeys and adding to the complexity of the food chain process. I am concerned about protecting and encouraging food enterprises. This country runs a deficit in milk-based products, in spite of having excellent raw materials. We must ensure that the regulatory framework allows that position to change.
It is critical that any controls and monitoring processes apply to imports at a level equivalent to those applied in the UK. We must recognise that that will be difficult, because the legal framework lies largely outside our control and is carried out by the European Union—albeit locally, by our agencies. Reaching a level of equivalence will be hard, but we must attempt it.
On education, we are moving towards a society of work-free and thought-free food, in which all the work is done by unknown hands. We are less and less aware of food science and of the reasons for what we are doing in the kitchen, which our parents would have readily understood. Our ignorance carries great risk. The Agriculture Committee has said that it is critical that the agency clearly defines the responsibilities of Government, of the food industry and of consumers themselves for food safety.
To try and pass the parcel away from the home is unrealistic, for obvious reasons, and it is dangerous in encouraging a degree of complacency—a belief that food can be totally safe. We will never achieve a clinical hospital environment for the production of our food—and arguably we never should, even if it were possible. Safety can never be assured. It is almost certainly true that there is as much risk in the domestic fridge and microwave as in some other parts of the food chain. Without pestering and intrusiveness, we should help to reverse the decline in public knowledge.
It is wise to reserve powers to intervene in the work of local authorities. Much valuable work is done by local authorities, but it is inconsistently prioritised, unevenly funded and patchy in effect. We have heard comments about that this evening.
I hope that the Bill will lead the drive to greater quality and consistency. My concerns relate largely to how the agency will act, rather than how the Bill is drafted or the intent of the Government. This is an excellent Bill, which was improved following the consultation. Let us get the agency working on it as fast as possible.
§ Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)
I had the honour to serve on the first pre-legislative scrutiny Committee which considered this Bill. I pay tribute to the Chairman, the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). He was given an extremely short time by the House authorities to get the Committee together, and he was given effectively about a month to get the 835 report out. There were many disparate views on the Committee, but we reached agreement on many points. The Bill was improved by many of the Committee's recommendations, and that was due very much to the skill of our Chairman.
Many of the witnesses from the public interest sector seemed to feel that the British food industry was some kind of conspiracy to poison the British public and—much worse—to make a profit from doing so. I felt that, in many ways, the safety problem was exaggerated.
With 59 million inhabitants eating three meals a day, I calculate that 64,605 million meals are eaten in this country each year. In 1997, there were 32,596 cases of salmonella—a figure which fell by 28 per cent. to 23,420 in 1998. Remarkably, no one really knows why. The probable explanation is that it was a cold summer, so people went back to eating more beef, which pushed consumption up to pre-BSE levels. At the same time—thanks to Delia Smith—there was a massive increase in egg consumption, which confounded those health pundits who are not keen on people eating eggs.
The 100,000 cases of food poisoning annually are more accurately reported by doctors as suspected food poisoning, and they do not have laboratory confirmation. In 1997, there were 307 deaths from food poisoning. That can be compared with the 3,278 deaths on the roads, or with the 1996 figure for accidents in the home—3,499. Sadly, the suicide figure for 1996 was 3,445. We must bear in mind the proportionality of the 307 tragic deaths from food poisoning.
When considering the Bill, we should keep these questions in mind. How do we minimise unnecessary deaths? How should the state's money best be spent to achieve that? That calls into question the concept of regulation by the state.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) spoke eloquently about the ghastly case in his constituency. No one here would begrudge the 30p that he said would pay for the agency, but his belief that the agency will cure all food problems is quaint and touching. It simply cannot do that.
As the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) said, there will always be a risk. An overarching state authority cannot remove all the risk. The responsibility for food standards and safety should remain firmly with the producers. The danger with state regulation is that it is in the regulators' self-interest to exaggerate a problem, underestimate the ease and cost of correction and overspecify the necessary solutions.
State regulation is frequently out of date and falls behind as technology moves on. Self-regulation can offer a better route so long as the responsibility rests firmly on the producers and they carry on their business in the knowledge that they will be caught and severely punished if they make a mistake.
Transportation in New Zealand is an interesting case. The state used to employ 5,500 people regulating every aspect of all New Zealand transport businesses, including safety and price. The authorities changed that, and, instead of insisting that operators complied with state regulations, they put the responsibility firmly on the operators. The number of people employed is now 57 and the measured safety outcomes are enormously improved.
Self-regulation works so long as there is the certainty of detection and then punishment for a failure. That could work here. We could easily have a simple, one-line Bill 836 imposing a fine of one year's turnover on any food business that is proven to have caused a major case of food poisoning. In those circumstances, an independent agency, studying, collating and above all disseminating the very latest information on food safety to food businesses could become an immensely benign institution, bringing widespread, positive results; but to be independent it should have absolutely no executive powers and should certainly not interfere directly.
I take issue immediately with clause 1(2). It is far too ambitious. It is unrealistic for a central Government agency to take on responsibility for the safety of all food sold in this country. The primary responsibility must rest with the producers. No Government institution can take responsibility for every process, so the agency's eventual failure is written into the Bill.
Worse, the Bill presumes an artificial difference of interest between the consumer and the producer. In fact, their interests are identical: the producer's only interest is in ensuring that the consumer enjoys his product and comes back to buy more. The agency should regard itself as a first-class provider of quality information to the producer, not the defender of the consumer against the producer.
Clauses 6, 7, 8 and 9 are potentially benign but would be far more constructive if the emphasis were on treating the producers and not the end customers as the agency's main focus. The agency's composition will be crucial in deciding which direction it will ultimately take. Clause 2 is highly unsatisfactory. It is vital that all sides of the food industry are represented, and the requirement on members to declare their interests must be placed in the Bill fair and square, as the Committee demanded.
Producers, distributors and caterers employ 500,000 people in small food businesses. Hundreds of small meat and dairy businesses are at risk because over-regulation is out of control. The Meat Hygiene Service is not mentioned once in the Bill; it is referred to only on pages 12, 37 and 40 of the explanatory notes. It is a strange organisation that goes back to the Farmers General, one of the agencies that was fundamental in bringing down the ancien regime in France. It is a tax farm. It has been given the right to extend its own activities, thus extending the resources that it requires.
I have had letters from all over the country about the appalling damage that the service is doing to small producers. It is trying to impose uniform practices and protocols from the centre on all meat producers. The correct target is to achieve a uniform outcome, regardless of the size of the enterprise.
That was graphically brought home to the Committee by Mr. Peter Greig of Piper's Farm in the west country. He offers superb products. In the past three years, he has won four national awards. He employs only seven full-time staff but keeps 25 surrounding farmers and an abattoir busy. His abattoir is consistently in the top 10 of the hygiene assessment scores. He takes one and a quarter hours to dress a bullock. The Meat Hygiene Service insists on a vet being present, as if it were a huge plant processing several hundred bullocks an hour. At £45 an hour, he is paying £60 per beast.
Elsewhere, the Meat Hygiene Service is employing Spanish vets with poor English. In one case in Shropshire, the vets mistook a pig's carcase for a bullock's; others in East Anglia worked for weeks in a turkey plant and 837 thought that the birds were chickens; another was paid a full day's wage by a small business and spent one and a half hours in the slaughter hall and six and a half hours in the office.
Despite all that, the Minister of State said on Radio 4 thatthe Government is very concerned about niche food producers.The owner of a small abattoir in east Wales wrote to me. His charges have gone up from £300 to £17,000 a year; he pays £180 a tonne, as opposed to the £1 a tonne in a big meat plant for a supermarket. He pointed out forcefully that the United States, Australia and New Zealand have rejected the system used by the Meat Hygiene Service and said that one study has shown thatthe largest single cause of meat contamination is the inspection process in the slaughterhouse.If the Meat Hygiene Service is to be run by the Food Standards Agency, the latter will be compromised. Fundamentally, we want an independent agency that rules out the current nonsense and says that it is the outcome that counts for the little abattoirs, which produce superb products, employ people in rural areas and pass the hygiene tests with flying colours. They do not need an incompetent, half-literate Spanish vet to be there the whole day. They want someone to check the outcomes, which are excellent.
The Meat Hygiene Service will report to the Food Standards Agency. It is not good enough to say that in another cupboard of the agency, a unit will do the auditing. The agency cannot be the auditor and the enforcer. That simply cannot work. The Committee said that, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board, as so far our advice has not been taken.
There is a fundamental flaw in the Bill. There will inevitably be a food scare, and it is certain that the Meat Hygiene Service, if it reports to the FSA, will pass the ball straight up the line. The blame will pass to the new—independent, free and open?—Food Standards Agency. That is a real problem. The very first time that we have a meat scare, the new agency's reputation will be tarnished, possibly irrevocably.
The Meat Hygiene Service is a huge quango and it must be monitored by a strong, independent body. If it is to work, it is absolutely vital that the FSA is seen to be independent.
It is bizarre that the Government believe that the FSA can absorb 1,500 people employed by the MHS, although only 400 will be working in the agency, and that the tail will not wag the dog. It is also strange that the Bill does not actually say that that enormous organisation will be taken over by the FSA. We are on the way to setting up a national hygiene service that will report, ultimately, to the EU Food and Veterinary Office in Dublin.
Schedule 3, part II, will give the FSA the power to remove the safety enforcement from a local authority that has failed to meet the necessary standards. The Local Government Association spokesman told us:If a function is to be removed from a democratically elected local authority then it seems to be something that the minister on advice ought to do directly.838 The Committee clearly recommended thatthe final decision to invoke the power to remove food safety enforcement from a local authority that has failed to meet the required standards should remain with the Secretary of State having received advice from the Agency.That advice has been ignored. Why? Surely only an elected Minister responsible to Parliament should overrule another elected body. It is a most unhealthy constitutional development for the Bill to propose that a quango with non-elected members should do that.
Clause 21, schedule 3, clause 2, clause 26 and schedule 4(5) give the agency extraordinarily wide powers. If it is not intended that the agency should take over powers of enforcement from local government, why has it been given them in the first place? Local government service has always had public health at its heart, centred on food, pollution and housing—take out public health, and the central rationale of local government will be destroyed. There will be little incentive for local authorities to collaborate with the FSA if it is seen to be intent on usurping their powers. If that is not the long-term intention, those powers should be removed from the Bill.
If the FSA is to take those excessive powers, there must be an appeal mechanism so that small—and large—food producers can appeal to an independent body. That is necessary because the FSA will not be perfect and it will make mistakes.
§ Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central)
I welcome this initiative. The area that I represent is at the centre of the largest food producing area in Scotland—the north-east—and we have major fanning and fishing industries, from the producers through to the processors. In addition, we have a number of scientific institutions that have a specific interest in food and food science. I firmly believe that the Bill, which I hope will lead to cleaner and more wholesome food, is in the interest of everyone in those industries.
§ Mr. Savidge
Does my hon. Friend feel that the extraordinary concentration of food producers, processors and researchers in Aberdeen, working across such a wide range of different types of food—from red and white meat to seafood, dairy produce and whisky—means that there is a strong case for it to be involved in the Scottish end of the FSA operation?
§ Mr. Doran
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that that is a key element of my speech.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who is no longer in his place, referred to the work of Professor Philip James from the Rowett research institute in Aberdeen, and the contribution that he has made to the development of policy in this area. I take an especial pleasure in that because I introduced my right hon. Friend to Professor James when my right hon. Friend was the Front-Bench spokesman on agriculture and I was previously a Member of Parliament. I am pleased that Professor James's work and the collaboration that they started then has led to this important measure.
In his report, Professor James identified three problems with the present system of regulation of food. He identified the potential for conflicts of interest within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, arising from 839 its dual responsibilities for protecting public health and sponsoring the agriculture and food industries. He also identified the fragmentation and lack of co-ordination between the various Government bodies involved in food safety, and the uneven enforcement of food law. All of that has been evident in the years I have spent in the House.
Other hon. Members mentioned the various food scares there have been, such as those involving salmonella, BSE and E. coli, which was spoken of so movingly by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), and we have all heard of the recent problems in Belgium. When even a company of the size and status of Coca-Cola can have problems, we know that the issue is serious. The only way to deal with it is by proper independent regulation. We need a powerful independent agency, which will be provided by this legislation.
There is also a political aspect to the issue. In the years that I have been in the House, I have seen the various problems brought before the House and various Ministers skewered on their own complacency. That is certainly how the previous Government operated and I do not want to see that happen to my Government.
It is interesting that no contribution from the Conservatives today—from shadow Minister to Back Benchers—has shown any sign that that sense of complacency has gone. We have heard a succession of Corporal Frasers preaching doom about the disasters that will befall us if the Bill is passed. I exempt the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), as he attempted to make constructive proposals to deal with the problems that he envisaged. However, when he said that the food safety factor is often exaggerated, it demonstrated that he suffers from the same problem as his colleagues. A serious problem exists, and Conservative Members need to learn the lessons.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when he winds up, will deal with the several issues that I wish to raise. The first has to do with charging, on which most people have welcomed the Government's change of heart. I always thought that a uniform charge was wrong in principle, but the costs to the major food producers and supermarkets would have amounted to only a small proportion of their advertising budgets, let alone their turnovers. Although I believe that investing in food safety by means of the charge would be better for those companies than using the money in the budgets that I mentioned, the decision has been made. I respect the way in which the Government made it, and the consultation process that was held.
Nevertheless, I am concerned about the lack of powers for charging in the Bill. Clause 21(3) allows the agency tomake charges for facilities or services provided by it at the request of any person.I should welcome an explanation of how that will operate in practice. In the research that the agency will either commission or undertake, material will be produced with great commercial value. Will the agency be entitled to charge for it?
In addition, will the agency be entitled to benefit from patents arising from any discoveries made as a result of work that it commissions or undertakes? I understand that the decision about charging has been made, but that does not mean that money cannot be raised in other ways.
840 I am also interested in how the agency will operate, given the constitutional changes that have been made. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said in his opening remarks, and I am pleased that the working parties are already studying how the cross-boundary systems will be put in place. However, emergencies will arise occasionally and require very swift action. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say how they will be handled with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and, when it is in place, the Northern Ireland Assembly?
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) raised the issue of Aberdeen's suitability as the headquarters for the Scottish agency. In the north of Scotland, we were especially disappointed when the Government decided that the national agency would be located in London. We felt that there were many good reasons for locating it in Aberdeen.
Earlier, I mentioned the problem of a conflict of interest in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, from where many of the new agency's personnel will be recruited. Many people outside the Ministry have felt for a long time that what might be called a cultural problem has affected the handling of food and food industry issues. One way to deal with that problem, and the public's perception of it, would be to create a certain amount of distance between the old Ministry and the location of the new agency. Given that one cannot get much further from London than Aberdeen, that geographical distance might have made a difference in terms of perception. In its early days, the agency will find it difficult to establish its independence, and an Aberdeen location might have assisted with that.
I am also conscious of the significant constitutional changes in the country. There is a perception that we will operate as four separate countries. I have fought all my political life for devolution and I firmly believe in devolving power away from this place, but that does not mean that we can no longer consider placing our national institutions outside England, particularly outside London. I can think of no greater statement in support of the Union than the location of the agency outside London, perhaps even in my city of Aberdeen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North mentioned our city's interest in food. We are one of the leading food-producing regions of the UK, particularly for red meat, white meat and marine fisheries. About 75 per cent. of the white fish landed in the United Kingdom is landed in the north-east of Scotland at Peterhead and Aberdeen. We have the bulk of the Scotch Whisky Association. We also have two universities with—
§ Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the research institutes, will he say whether he agree that it is not just the volume of our participation in the food industry, but the quality of our products and their added value that marks out the north-east of Scotland as a major area of food production?
§ Mr. Doran
I agree entirely. Our quality produce is recognised and branded throughout the world. I hope that hon. Members appreciate the power of the local press in the debate.
We have two universities with their own schools of agriculture, and seven research institutes. Some 3,000 people in the north-east of Scotland are employed in 841 food research, mainly based around the city of Aberdeen. That is important. The all-party fisheries group had a meeting today with representatives of the fish-processing industry, which employs 5,000 people. We employ people from catchers and growers through to food processing and the scientists working at the cutting edge of food science, one of whom is Philip James, to whom I have spoken.
I appreciate that the decision on the location of the national agency has been made. I gather that the offices in Holborn have been acquired and the moving job is already out to tender, so I appreciate that the battle is lost. I also appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is on the Front Bench, will not be making the decision, because one of the more welcome aspects of the Bill is the authority that is given to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive. However, he will forgive me if I make the case for Aberdeen being the location of the Scottish executive of the Food Standards Agency.
§ Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)
I welcome the idea of a Food Standards Agency. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) rightly stressed the importance of the benefits for consumers. We must also stress the benefits for the food industry, which is important in other areas as well as the north-east of Scotland. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) said, it is essential to increase consumer confidence and ensure the independent monitoring of standards. We must remove the suspicion—even if it is unjustified—that MAFF and the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department are too close to the producers, from whom they are meant to be independent.
The food industry in Scotland thrives because of the reputation of its products, which are of the highest quality. The industry is vital to the rural areas—not just agriculture and horticulture, but food processing, marketing and retailing. An independent agency will help to maintain the industry's high standards and will reinforce public confidence in them.
With the notable exception of the speech of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran), the constitutional aspect of the Bill has been only briefly touched on in the debate. As the Minister and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central said, the matter has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It is one of the minority of areas that is specifically devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 1998. Most devolved areas were devolved not deliberately, but by default because they were not on the reserved list in schedule 5. Section C8 of schedule 5 reserves product standards and safety to Westminster, but specifically exempts from that reservationFood, agricultural and horticultural produce, fish and fish products, seeds, animal feeding stuffs, fertilisers and pesticides.The whole area dealt with by the Food Standards Agency therefore comes within the remit of the new Scottish Parliament.
Coincidentally, the Scottish Parliament will assume its powers on 1 July. We will be visited by the Queen and the Prime Minister. I hope that I am not alone in being astonished that, 10 days before the Scottish Parliament 842 enters into its powers, this House is beginning the formal consideration of a United Kingdom measure that legislates for something wholly devolved to the Scottish Parliament. We are not legislating on the periphery of the Scottish Parliament's powers. This is not some spin-off of reserved legislation that incidentally happens to touch on some devolved matters but substantive, deliberate legislation on something that, on 1 July, will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It is as if, having given the power to the Scottish Parliament, and before it has even had the chance to exercise it, the Government have decided that they want to keep some of it. Why is that happening? It will appear in Scotland that Westminster does not wish to let go of the powers and wants to remain in charge.
It will be argued that it is administratively simple to have the same legislation and to have one agency, even if Members representing north-east Scotland would dearly have loved its headquarters to have been there. If the argument for administrative simplicity is valid for this Bill and this agency, it is valid across a range of subjects, many of which are devolved.
§ Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)
The hon. Gentleman knows that that is the case. The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission, which is to be set up, are United Kingdom agencies. Surely it is sensible for the Food Standards Agency to be treated accordingly.
§ Mr. Morgan
I do not think that it straightforwardly and logically follows that this should be a United Kingdom agency. We might as well say that we should have one Parliament to make everything administratively simpler. [HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear.] I know that Conservative Members agree with that.
§ Mr. Morgan
No, I want to make some progress.
If the House did not want food standards to be devolved and wanted the matter to be covered by one agency, it had the chance, when debating the Scotland Bill only a year ago, not to devolve food standards, but the horse has bolted from the stable because of this House's decisions. The essence of devolution is the recognition that some parts of the country may want to do things somewhat differently from other parts of the country, either substantially or in detail.
In Committee on the Scotland Bill, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (Mr. Dewar) said:there is a possibility, in theory, of the United Kingdom Parliament legislating across those areas"—he meant the devolved areas—but it is not one which we anticipate or expect."—[Official Report, 28 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 402–03.]Some 18 months on, I detect some movement in his position. Now promoted—if that is the correct term; certainly he changed his title to First Minister—on 16 June, he told the Scottish Parliament thatThere will be exceptional limited circumstances in which it is sensible and proper that the Westminster Parliament legislates in devolved areas of responsibility".That is totally different from what he had said 18 months before. Despite the facts that the powers are specifically devolved to Scotland and that the Scottish Parliament has 843 not even started to exercise them, food standards are apparently so exceptional that Westminster must legislate for Scotland. A substantial Bill such as this hardly fits the First Minister's other description of "limited circumstances". I raise another matter to which the Minister referred—
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Calum Macdonald)
The hon. Gentleman talks as if the decision is entirely one for the Westminster Parliament. The Scottish Executive have agreed the matter with the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Parliament will have the opportunity—I think tomorrow—to make its views known. If the Scottish Parliament decides that this is a sensible way to proceed, that is surely the way that it should happen.
§ Mr. Morgan
I thank the Minister for that intervention, as I was coming to that specific point: the consultation that has taken place with the Scottish Parliament on this subject. On 9 June, the First Minister said, about food standards:the United Kingdom Government made it clear when it published a draft bill earlier this year that the Scottish Parliament's consent"—not the consent of the Scottish Administration, which is a totally different thing—would be sought for this proposal.On 16 June, the First Minister said, in relation to Westminster legislating on devolved matters:that can happen only with the consent of this Parliament"—that is, the Scottish Parliament—consent specifically given after due process.The Scottish Parliament has not been asked thus far. The Administration and the coalition may have been asked, but not the Parliament. When will its views be sought? [Interruption.] The Minister perhaps does not know the timetable for the Scottish Parliament as well as I do, but I assure him that it will not be tomorrow. Will the Scottish Parliament be asked after Second Reading of the Bill, after Third Reading, or Royal Assent? Perhaps the issue will be discussed on Wednesday—there is debate on a devolved issue scheduled for that day.
Let me pose another question: what will happen if the Scottish Parliament says no? What will happen if the Scottish Parliament says, "Yes, but we'd like to change this bit or that bit"? A "process of consultation" implies that the Government are prepared to listen to the results of that consultation. During the passage of the Bill, will Westminster change the clauses relating to Scotland if the Scottish Parliament decides that it wants them altered? I accept that that is unlikely to occur on this occasion because, politically, the Administrations are the same—or nearly the same—in both Houses. The attraction of the new ministerial cars in Edinburgh remains sufficiently strong for the Liberal Democrats that they will stay on board until the matter reaches the statute book.
What of the future? How on earth will such an arrangement work—it is clear from ministerial statements that this is not the end of the process; it will not stop with the Food Standards Agency—when the two Parliaments have Administrations of different political hues? We are creating a dangerous precedent. Devolution will work in one way only: Westminster must take a self-denying ordinance not to legislate in this place for matters that are devolved to Scotland.
844 We need a convention—equivalent to the Salisbury convention with the House of Lords—which says that, although Westminster undoubtedly has the power under clause 28 of the Scotland Act 1998 to legislate regarding any matter in Scotland, it will not avail itself of that power. It would be a fine inaugural present for the Scottish Parliament if the House were to say that it trusts the new democracy in Scotland to make its own decisions and let it get on with the job.
§ Mr. Rooker
The hon. Gentleman implies that we are not treating the Scottish Parliament with respect, but we are—that is why clause 32 is in the Bill. It is wholly within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to vote at any time in the future to take unto itself all of those powers. That would not cause a problem from a primary legislation point of view because it is built into the Bill. That is the perception for the future. We are treating the Scottish Parliament with respect, as we clearly said that we would when we published the White Paper 18 months ago.
§ Mr. Morgan
Perhaps the Minister underestimates the powers of the Scottish Parliament; on 2 July, it is within the powers of that Parliament to revoke all the clauses of the Bill that apply to Scotland. However, I am trying to make the point that it would be far better if, rather than passing these measures in the first place, this House let the Scottish Parliament get on with it on 2 July. That leaves aside the more worrying precedent that is being created for other matters that are allegedly devolved, but that a future Government—perhaps not a Labour Government—will try to impose on Scotland.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)
I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate. I do not intend to go down the road of talking about what happens in separate Assemblies and Parliaments. However, a representative from Scotland took part in the special scrutiny of the Bill and perhaps some of the practical issues should have been dealt with at that time.
The Bill is important, partly because it was a flagship policy for the new Labour Government, but also because, organisationally and procedurally, it was the first measure to be the subject of the special scrutiny procedure. As the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) pointed out, that was an especially valuable procedure. The Bill has been strongly welcomed by my constituents, who have consistently lobbied me on food safety issues.
I shall consider some of the changes that were made to the Bill after the consultation process, especially the changes in the way that the agency should work with local authorities. I very much welcome the rather tougher tone taken in the Bill towards local authorities compared to the tone in the draft Bill, although I realise that other speakers in the debate hold varying views on that matter. However, I was concerned that, in the draft Bill, too much was left to the old enforcement measures. I was not convinced that that would necessarily bring about the changes in standards that we wanted, especially given the wide variation between local authorities in such matters as the division of responsibilities, the variation of practices and budgets, and divisions in scrutiny and accountability.
In my local authority, the Northamptonshire county council trading standards service undertakes some outstanding work. I bring a couple of the department's 845 cases to the attention of the House. The first case belies the comment made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that no food could be bad for one and that it was a question of diet. One of the actions taken by the trading standards service was against the makers of one of the high energy sports drinks of which so much is claimed. The drink, called "Carbo Power energy drink", was found to contain too many preservatives: 460 mg per litre of sorbic acid, which is 80 per cent. above the permitted level; and 600 mg per litre of benzoic acid, which is 300 per cent. in excess of the permitted level. Those preservatives are not so much something that might possibly cause a problem if one consumed too much of them; rather, they have been linked to bad reactions from asthma sufferers.
One of the reasons why we need the Food Standards Agency is that the way that people eat is changing—the type of food they eat and the risks to which they are exposed are changing. As my hon. Friend the Minister frequently points out, the type of bugs are changing. It is not simply the case that we should tell people to eat more greens, or a bit more of this or that; people are buying processed, packaged and prepared food, and we do not always know how much salt, preservative, fat or other things such foods contain. I shall not go into the subject of turkey burgers, which kept the Committee entertained at almost every meeting.
Another example from the Northamptonshire trading standards service related to cans of cooked chicken that contained too many fragments of bone. In one instance, 32 bone fragments per tin were found. The tins were sold in cut-price supermarkets, and that raises the worrying and strong link between cost and food quality. In protecting food quality, the FSA will be not only considering old and young people who are most likely to suffer from food poisoning, but guarding the quality of food sold to people who can least afford to waste money on poor products.
Although some local authorities, such as my own, do extremely well, others do not. Several hon. Members have talked about outbreaks of E. coli on premises that local authority food standards inspectors have found to be working well. We must ensure uniform standards. That is one reason why I agree with the enforcement powers spelled out in the Bill, and why there must be a stick as well as a carrot.
I also very much welcome the fact that the Bill does not provide for Crown immunity. That is an important new aspect, which means that the Bill will protect not only us in this House, but more importantly, people in hospitals and prisons. We know that people are most likely to suffer food poisoning from institutional catering rather than from one-off meals in a private home. I notice that the one exemption to the provision on Crown immunity is the Queen in her private capacity. At this late hour, that conjures up certain pictures.
Everybody has said that it is good to have dropped the food poll tax, and that will be particularly welcomed in corner and village shops. The levy would have been extraordinarily difficult to implement; I have no doubt that people would have found all kinds of ingenious ways of claiming that they were not running a shop.
The change is good practically, too, although I acknowledge the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), who 846 spoke so movingly about E. coli. Members of my family have suffered from that disease, so I share his concern about the illness. There are arguments for requiring a very wealthy industry to contribute to the improvement of standards but, at the end of the day, there was a very strong feeling among the public that who pays the piper calls the tune. It is important that independent financing underwrites the independence of the FSA.
I do not share the view that the food industry is a big conspiracy. Although I have concerns about quality and diet, the best of our food industry is absolutely superb. It has a very important role to play in improving food standards in this country and, indeed, abroad, since the food industry, like others, is international.
For example, the Henry Telfer factory in my constituency makes sandwiches for Marks and Spencer. Many hon. Members present are probably very familiar with its products. Its standard of cleanliness is absolutely superb. The attention given to detail in the production of those sandwiches is second to none. Indeed, its floors are cleaner than many people's kitchen tables; it is quite remarkable. The FSA can play an important role in ensuring that such technical expertise pulls up food standards and quality for everybody.
I am sure that the marketing sections of some companies, working with consumers, can produce good food labelling which will tell consumers what they are eating. I very much hope that responsibility for labelling will not be delegated to committees—or, even worse, to lawyers.
I very much welcome the commitment to scrutinise the entire food chain. The importance of that has been underlined by this morning's release of the Food Ethics Council report on the use of drugs in farm animals. It is a reminder that some practices on farms can have as great an impact on people's health as any of the other factors up and down the food chain.
Several Opposition Members have asked what difference the Food Standards Agency will make. I believe that it will make important differences to what happens to food. Unfortunately, it will not mean that no one will ever get E. coli, but it will be an important policing force for food standards. If it works as is envisaged in the Bill and was spelt out in the Special Select Committee, it will drive up food standards. In its role in the European Union and elsewhere, it will help to drive up food standards throughout Europe and contribute to real improvements in the industry. It will improve public health by improving the safety of food and the nutritional content of people's diet.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)
I welcome the principle of the Bill. I especially welcome the decision not to go ahead with the levy. Some Machiavellian people have told me that they wondered whether the Government put the levy in the Bill in the first place to take everyone's eye off the ball so that they would focus on that and everything else would slip through nicely when the Government did their U-turn. Anyway, it is a step in the right direction.
I know how the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) must feel. In my constituency, there are communities where the small shop is teetering on the brink of survival, and the fear of losing that shop is a 847 major threat. Anything that the Government do to make life worse for the small shop is another nail in the coffin of the rural community—I hope that the Minister understands that.
I share some of the concerns of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) about the need for proportionality when it comes to food and the need to remember that the consumer has a role to play in food hygiene. In a sense, food has become so safe over the years that we may have lost the need to be cautious of it and to recognise that, in processing it in our kitchens, we are the final link that decides how safe it will be when consumed.
§ Miss Begg
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that education is crucial in the light of the outbreak of E. coli in MacDuff, where it was the grandmother, desperately trying to do her best for her granddaughter's class, who produced the goat's cheese that created the outbreak; but obviously education was needed for the teacher in the class, to ensure that such things do not happen in future.
§ Sir Robert Smith
Education is crucial. Some of us have reached the time in our life when, as a family, we take over responsibility for hosting Christmas, as the next generation does. I would have welcomed the advice of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border on how to stuff a turkey. Sometimes I know at the back of my mind that there are things that we should do in the kitchen to increase food safety, but I am not sure that I have the information to give me confidence that we are doing everything correctly. We have not had a food scare at home, but without the necessary information and advice, that risk remains.
I share the concern of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) about the wide-ranging powers that have dropped into the Bill. In the two years I have been in Parliament I have noticed that, towards the end of many Bills, after all the detail, there is a clause that says, "Never mind what has gone before. We can do whatever we like by Order in Council or by laying regulations before Parliament." One wonders why the Bill was so detailed, and why the Government did not simply say, "If we want to do this, we will take the powers to do it." Perhaps the Minister will reassure us that the powers in the Bill are not as draconian as they look.
I join other hon. Members representing the north-east in making that pitch. I have made a pitch for the high quality of food from the north-east. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) said, we also have high-quality research in the north-east. The critical mass of research can be made available there. It seems obvious to put the Food Standards Agency in among that research, and there would be the symbolism of removing it from the centre of Government. That argument has been made. Other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall be as quick as possible. The added benefit is that the north-east is an extremely attractive working environment. The staff of many agencies and organisations have been worried when they were told that they would have to move to the north-east, but once they are there, it is impossible to get them to move on to other parts of the United Kingdom. I therefore put in my plea and bid for the north-east.
848 The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) is, sadly, not present. He seems to have missed the point of devolution. Once the Scottish Parliament has been established and given powers, the people of Scotland have the option of deciding that although they have the power to do things differently, they want to co-operate in a joint approach to tackling the problem. That does not mean that Scotland is not entitled to do it differently. It means that Scotland can opt to work together with the rest of the United Kingdom to achieve a solution.
There may be a problem with the sequence of events, as the Scottish Parliament will discuss the matter on Wednesday, but in the light of discussions in the Scottish Parliament, it is possible to change the Bill in Committee or on Report. The hon. Gentleman may be panicking unduly. We should recognise the freedom of the Scottish people to decide to co-operate with the other people of the United Kingdom for the benefit of all.
I broadly welcome the Bill, but I do not consider it a panacea. It may entail too many powers. I hope that the concerns about the Meat Hygiene Service will be examined, and that attention will be given to the problem of poacher and gamekeeper being together in one house.
§ Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)
I shall be brief, especially by trying not to mention Aberdeen more than once.
I welcome the Bill. I have a personal interest in the matter because way back in the early 1980s, as a GLC councillor, I funded the London Food Commission. At that time it was described as a loony left project, but it promoted many of the objectives of the Bill. I also have a constituency interest. Tragically, my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Nash, lost their young daughter, Joanna, in 1994 as a result of contact with E. coli 0157. She developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome, which it was suspected she contracted as a result of eating a hamburger from a fast-food chain.
With others across the country, Mr. and Mrs. Nash went on to form HUSH, the HUS help group—the UK E. coli support group—which aims to establish communication between the families of sufferers of the illness; to increase understanding and awareness of E. coli, thereby reducing the risk of infection; and to increase knowledge among general practitioners in particular, so as to assist in diagnosis and treatment. The group has also set itself the target of lobbying Ministers, and has been successful in encouraging research and legislation to tackle the problem.
I know that members of the group are to meet the Minister. I have discussed with them issues relating to the independence of the agency. It is important that the agency's membership should be independent. Experience shows that the contribution of advisory committees to that body will be significant. It is therefore critical that the membership of the advisory committees include representatives of the families of sufferers.
The projected number of additional staff is 150. I hope that that will allow fresh expertise to be drawn in, to increase the confidence of the general public. I accept that there will be local authority secondments, but perhaps there should be further secondments from academic institutions and even from some of the campaigning groups.
849 That point leads me on to the budget. The start-up cost is to be £30 million, with on-going costs of £20 million. I am concerned that that may be insufficient for the promotion of research and the information exercises that we want the agency to undertake. The budget needs reappraisal.
I am anxious about the abolition of the levy. It should not have been imposed on the small shopkeepers and retailers, but it should have been kept for the large companies that could afford it. It assumes fairly substantial profits in recent years. I do not want to pick on Tesco in particular—but why not? Many companies could make a financial contribution, and in that way demonstrate a commitment. The money could be spent on funding the research and the massive educational programme that is needed to raise consciousness, by working with public and voluntary sector groups such as HUSH.
I welcome the Bill's openness. There will undoubtedly be an increase in transparency, but I am concerned about the public interest and its definition in clause 19(3); we need a clearer definition before we allow case law to define it. I accept that there is an ethos of publishing preference, but I am anxious about clause 25, which gives such a stark, overriding power to the Secretary of State to veto the distribution of information. In respect of future legislation, I reiterate what was said about the need for closer linkage with the current freedom of information debate.
There is power under clause 20 for the agency to issue guidance to local authorities and other public bodies on the management of particular outbreaks of food-borne diseases. I suggest that we should also take into the account the view expressed by some of the campaigning bodies that the guidance could perhaps be translated into a more popular form so that there could be monitoring not only by local authorities and various agencies, but by the community itself relating to what actions need to be taken to ensure the safety of the public.
The fine for failure to notify the incidence of a particular outbreak remains £5,000, which is too low in my view. There is no reference in the Bill to a future fines review, but I urged Ministers in Committee that there should be such a review and that the fines should be increased substantially.
Finally, I move on to one of the issues raised by the campaigning groups. The legislation is welcome and we are also pleased that the agency will be integrated in the Department of Health. One responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health must be enhanced awareness among general practitioners and hospital staff who can identify and diagnose problems early and therefore advise on the co-ordinate treatment.
Overall, I welcome the Bill. I believe that it is much needed and that it will go some way to restoring the confidence of the general public—but only if two factors are taken into account: first, the need for more resources, and secondly, the need for inclusiveness, particularly of the groups representing the families of past sufferers.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
I am delighted to participate in the debate because I recognise the importance of food safety and of achieving the highest possible food standards in this country.
850 I welcome the Government's changing their mind, or backing down, on charging and the fact that there will be no flat-rate levy. I am especially pleased because, after my "Save Our Shops" campaign, I have pages and pages of petitioners' signatures from people who live in villages throughout the length and breadth of the Vale of York, such as Rawcliffe and Skelton. Those people wanted to intervene to save villages and corner shops, so I am delighted that the Government have accepted that village shops and the services they provide go to the heart of rural life. I welcome the fact that the levy has been removed from the Bill permanently, never to return.
The Bill's main focus is on food safety. In particular, clause 1(2) says that the main objective of the Food Standards Agency isto protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way in which it is produced or supplied) and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food.That is welcome, but I add a note of caution. The explanatory notes, which of course are not binding, go on to say that the composition and labelling of foods will be also introduced. For example, the role of nutrition and what role the FSA may play in that have been discussed this evening. I urge the Government that its role on nutrition should be limited and specific.
What is the position of the FSA in relation to imported foods? Will it have any jurisdiction or none at all over the way that imported food is being produced, processed or packed? That in turn prompts the question: what steps will be taken to ensure that imported foods meet the same high standards as home-produced foods?
Clause 9 deals with animal feedstuffs. Pork and pigmeat from animals fed on illegal meat and bonemeal is being imported to this country, yet consumers are not aware that those animals have been fed on feedstuffs that are banned here. Could those foods be labelled in the future?
I regret the Bill's departure from the concept of partnership, to which the Government have referred in many other pieces of legislation. The agency could have been set up as a partnership between producers, retailers and consumers. Too much emphasis is placed on consumers and too little on factoring producers and retailers into the legislative loop.
I am also afraid that the agency may add an unnecessary tier of bureaucracy, as many of its functions could have been undertaken by existing functionaries, namely, environmental health officers or Health and Safety Executive officers. In that sense, it could be regarded as another regulatory burden on small businesses.
§ Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
Does my hon. Friend agree that small and medium-sized enterprises across the country, particularly in England—we have heard a lot this evening about Scotland—will suffer immeasurably as a result of the costs and implications of the Bill, however it is presented?
§ Miss McIntosh
I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention, which goes to the core of the Bill. Not only would the original Bill, which proposed a levy, have damaged village and corner shops, but the 851 slaughterhouses, abattoirs and butchers that make up small and medium-sized businesses will have an additional burden imposed on them by the Bill.
I echo what many of my hon. Friends have said: I would prefer food safety to be administered locally. Environmental health officers should be locally accountable to the Meat and Hygiene Service.
§ Miss McIntosh
I fear that we have had sufficient interventions from certain quarters of the House and I must make progress. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.
The Meat and Hygiene Service is to be absorbed into the Food Standards Agency. With regard to openness and transparency, can the Minister clear up an anomaly? Meat processing plants are supervised by environmental health officers, whereas meat cutting plants are supervised by the Meat Hygiene Service. Does that mean that both will be monitored by the Meat Hygiene Service? If so, that would be a regrettable move.
§ Miss McIntosh
Heads were nodding in various quarters to which I am not allowed to refer, so I am delighted that the Minister has put my mind at rest on that count. Will he now turn his attention to a question that I raised in an intervention: why are we the only country in the European Union that interprets the French term, "vétérinaire" as meaning fully qualified veterinary surgeon? In so doing, we are damaging our industry and I urge the Minister to ask his officials whether environmental health officers could be treated as "vétérinaire" for the purposes of the directive, as they are in countries such as Spain. This country is over-interpreting the regulations.
If the agency is to be independent, will the Minister assure the House that parliamentary scrutiny will take place both on the Floor of the House and by the Select Committees concerned, namely, those on health and agriculture? Will the agency be accountable to the Department of Health or the Department for Trade and Industry? I understand that most standards agencies report to the DTI, so it would be a break from tradition if that were altered.
On appointments to the agency, hon. Members from both sides of the House agree that the chairman, the chief executive and members of the agency should be of proven ability, high standing and without any vested interest. At the very least, some members should have a working knowledge of the food industry to prevent knee-jerk reactions to food safety scares that may arise in the future.
I echo the request of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) for the Minister to explain how a Food Standards Agency could have prevented the recent crisis in Belgium. Scientific evidence was presented to the Belgium Government, who refused to act and to share that information with the public.
I make a plea to the Minister that a competent risk assessment should be made on the basis of sound scientific evidence. I pray in aid the banning of beef on the bone. Farmers in the Vale of York are only too aware that we still cannot serve beef on the bone, yet the risk to 852 the consumer is minuscule. Choice has been taken away from the consumer. I hope that the Bill will provide for the Food Standards Agency to carry out a competent risk assessment on the basis of sound science.
I support the aims and objectives of the Food Standards Agency. It is welcome that the Government wish to instil confidence in the public and in consumers about the food safety of products produced in this country. However, I firmly believe that the FSA would fall short of its objectives if imported food products were not subject to the same high standards as we seek to impose on our own producers. Consumers must know that imported processed and home-produced foods are subject to the same high standards.
Although I shall not vote against Second Reading, I query the idea that the Food Standards Agency is the best vehicle and the best way to achieve these agreed aims, especially as its remit has, under clauses 21 and 32 and schedules 3 and 4, been substantially extended beyond what was originally intended. It will replace local contracts and the local control of environmental health officers, but I believe that local democracy and local control have a real part to play.
Like my colleagues, I hope that the Government will accept some of the amendments that we table in a positive vein to improve the parts of the Food Standards Agency that can be improved. I support Second Reading, subject to amendments being made before the Bill returns to the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
We have had a generally good-natured and constructive debate on a number of themes on which hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with unity of purpose. That bodes well for the Committee stage and for the Bill's further progress. I am sorry that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not present yet, because I want to pay tribute to him. He opened the debate in his usual courteous style, and he sat through much of it, which is more than can be said of most Cabinet Ministers. He did so of his own volition, and that was appreciated. He also attempted to answer all the interventions.
In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on charging, the right hon. Gentleman clearly stated that charging cannot be introduced because that clause has been removed from the Bill. We fully accept that, but the fact remains that if the Meat Hygiene Service is to be within the Food Standards Agency, an existing charging mechanism will be in place. Although the Minister of State clearly has no intention of altering the position, I should be grateful if he would point out any legal constraint that would prevent the agency from recouping some central costs through MHS charges if it felt so inclined. I am happy to accept that that is not his intention, but I should be grateful if he would examine the legal position to ensure that it could be stopped.
Of course we welcome the Government's decision to back down on the charging issue, but we should like to know where the money has come from. Only a few weeks ago, the Minister had to tell us that he was paying for the increased cost of the BSE inquiry by cutting expenditure elsewhere. I hope that, in the spirit of openness that has pervaded the debate, the Minister will tell us where the money is coming from, welcome as it is.
853 The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who chaired the Committee that examined the draft Bill, spoke of the briefness of his timetable and the difficulty of doing a comprehensive job in that time; but I pay tribute to him, and to his Committee, for doing a pretty good job in what were clearly difficult circumstances. The hon. Gentleman made particular reference to advertising, and the agency's role in that context. I hope that the Government will respond to what he said.
Much of the debate hinged on the issue of the agency's independence, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and others referred. On page 5 of their response to the Committee, the Government say:It is not the Government's intention that the Agency should be wholly independent of Government.However, the notes on clauses—which I suspect we have all seen—say that clause 1 establishes the agency as a Crown body, and that it will be a non-ministerial Department. Indeed, the Minister of State intervened to reaffirm that, going so far as to suggest that it would be as independent as Customs and Excise. That does not sit well with the statement that the Government do not intend the agency to be wholly independent.
Clause 21 gives the Government power to overrule the agency's advice, and to invoke draconian powers to act independently and contrary to it. Does that mean that the Government would, or could, continue to ignore advice from their statutory advisers, as they have already ignored that of English Nature on genetically modified crops?
The Government's response also states:Any decisions made by the Secretary of State to direct the Agency could be subject to the usual and established procedures of Parliamentary and Judicial accountability.Having experienced two years of the Government's attitude to parliamentary accountability, I should be grateful if the Minister would expand on precisely how he thinks that that could be achieved.
Comments have been made about representation in Europe, and negotiations on issues in Europe that relate to the agency's responsibilities. The Government have said clearly that the agency will represent the United Kingdom Government in Europe. However, it will have to represent not its policy but Government policy, even if the Government have failed to represent the agency's recommended policy.
It is clear that the Government expect the agency to play a major role in strengthening public confidence. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have sought to achieve that, but I fear that the Bill goes only part of the way towards fulfilling the Government's expectation. It also has the potential—I put it no more strongly than that—to join an ever-growing list of Big Brother policies. There is considerable concern—which has been expressed in the debate—that, while the powers being given to the agency may be justifiable in some circumstances, it will have the potential to exploit them in an overbearing manner, to take things too far and to cause immense damage to food businesses and manufacturers, small abattoirs and many others who will be affected by its activities. I hope that the Government will show us some way in which the agency can be constrained so that it uses its powers responsibly.
854 Nowhere is that more relevant than in relation to nutrition and dietary advice. Over the years, we have all heard of many cases in which advice on what to eat or drink has, a year or two later, been overruled—so that the advice changed from, "Don't eat or drink any of that", to, "Eat and drink lots of it." The Opposition are concerned that the agency will take the practice too far, providing advice that might damage businesses and affect individuals, only for that advice to prove, in later years, to have been wrong.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) also said that the agency should be involved in food quality. Although I understand his objective, I must tell him that quality is usually very much a matter of perception. I am reminded of an article in last week's edition of The Sunday Telegraph, which said that a chef had quit because the owners wanted, as he put it, to "dumb down the menu". The chef thought that the new menu's quality was not adequate—although it included sea bream served with pesto and rib-eye of beef in red wine sauce, which I should argue is perfectly good-quality food.
Hon. Members have also mentioned the agency's accountability and the annual report. The question is how the Government will measure the agency's success. Although Ministers have said clearly that the Food Standards Agency will work out national multidisciplinary indicators with local authorities—which we welcome—neither the Bill nor the Minister's speech gave any indication of how the performance of the agency itself will be measured. Although bald statistics, such as food poisoning incidents, could be a part of such measurement, what else will be used?
Over three years, the Government will not only spend £123 million in establishing the agency, but, subsequently, annually spend another £29 million of taxpayers' money. What system will the Government use to assess whether that money is being well spent? Clause 4, on the need to publish a report, does not provide an adequate measurement—we already see enough annual reports from agencies and organisations that are simply guff and self-congratulatory. The Government must publicise and publicly set targets, and the report must show if those targets are being met.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)—who, at one time, had responsibility for these issues—addressed in detail the issue of risk assessment. The Select Committee on Agriculture, in its report, said:One of the first tasks for the Food Standards Agency will be to draw up and publish the risk assessment criteria under which it will operate. We recommend that it consults widely on these criteria before they are adopted. A clear definition of the respective responsibilities of the Government, the Food Industry and the individual consumer is also required.There has been only a deathly hush in response to that, but I hope that the Minister will today provide us with a response.
The Consumers Association survey said that 97 per cent. of people wanted the agency to guarantee that food was safe. Many hon. Members have described the true absurdity of that objective—[Interruption.] The Agriculture Minister laughs, but, as he will understand, if that is people's expectation—
§ Mr. Paice
I did say that the Agriculture Minister is a good guy, and I shall say it again now that he is in the Chamber: he is a good guy—at least in the way in which he deals with his debates.
Nevertheless, if people really believe that the agency will be able to guarantee that food is 100 per cent. safe, expectations have risen far beyond that which is attainable by anyone, however clever he may be. Do Ministers accept that it is impossible to remove risk? Do they also agree that—as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) said—it could even be undesirable to pursue the goal of removing risk, as that might render the population sensitive to all manner of ailments—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) laughs, but he obviously does not know any science. If we remove the body's opportunity to develop its natural immunities, people become much more susceptible to ordinary ailments that they previously would have resisted.
Several hon. Members said that they believe that the advent of the Food Standards Agency will prevent further food poisoning outbreaks. I wish that were true.
§ The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)
No one has said that.
§ Mr. Paice
The right hon. Gentleman was here for the first speech, and that was that. I can tell him that that has been suggested by some of his hon. Friends. It is not an achievable objective. I do not believe that we are serving our constituents well by suggesting that if the Food Standards Agency had been in existence, none of the recent food scares or incidents would have happened. The hon. Member for North Cornwall called my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk "the Member for hindsight"—but we have seen far more hindsight from Labour Members tonight.
Many hon. Members have referred to the Meat Hygiene Service. The Government have said that the service should report to the agency, and yet maintain its identity as a discrete executive agency. However, we have no real explanation—despite the Minister's emollient words—about why the Government have rejected the view of the Committee that the two major roles of the MHS, regulation and enforcement, should be separated. I hope that the Government will take heed of what was said by many Members on both sides of the House and look again at their decision on the position of that service.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) referred to the possibility of appeals, and to the severe impact on small businesses and abattoirs—the hon. Member for South Derbyshire referred to a small cheese producer—if the agency used its powers in too draconian or overbearing a manner. I hope that the Government will look at the relevant mechanisms to provide some avenue of appeal before businesses are closed down by an over-zealous inspector.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said in his opening speech, we would like the agency to have the same powers of control with regard to imported foods—a matter referred to by, among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). 856 Why should food be allowed into the UK which has been produced to standards below those expected of food producers in this country? Why should foreign food be allowed into Britain, deliberately undercutting British food producers, whose hands are tied by stricter production standards?
Will Ministers agree to extend the powers of the agency? Obviously such powers cannot affect how food is produced abroad, but they can certainly affect what food is imported into this country, and whether it meets the standards demanded of domestic production. The Minister said nothing about the future of his own Ministry. I must ask whether this Bill, once enacted, leaves very much for it, and whether this is his swan-song. The Government have given Welsh farm policy to a vegetarian and Scottish farm policy to a Liberal. They are giving food policy to the FSA, and they are clearly intent on bankrupting thousands of farmers whose incomes have fallen by more than 70 per cent. since they came to power. We must wonder what is left for MAFF to do. What other goals does the Minister have? Did the Minister's mentor and namesake, the Chancellor, say, "Go to MAFF and get rid of it"?
The Bill has the Opposition's support in principle, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk made clear. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said, it is important not to raise expectations to the unattainable. We support the principle of the Bill, but believe that there is significant room for improvement. I hope that the Government will listen to those concerns and to those of the many organisations which have responded since the final version of the Bill was published. If they do respond, we will do all that we can to give the Bill a fair wind.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)
I will do my best in the time available to respond to as many points as possible.
On behalf of the Government and the House, I want to pay tribute to the work of the Special Select Committee. We understand the reasons why the Committee had such a tight timetable. We intended, if at all possible, to start to legislate in this Session, so everyone could work out the time constraints that we were under. The Committee did an excellent job, and the proof of that is that the Bill has changed as a direct result of the report and the evidence given to the Committee by outsiders.
We have heard 16 speeches from Back Benchers, with detailed and positive points, although there have been a few negatives. We must not lose sight of the ball itself: why the agency is needed. It was proposed by both Government and Opposition Members before the general election, to overcome the perceived contradiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as the sponsoring Department of agriculture and the food industry, being the guardian of food standards and safety. We could not carry the public perception. That is why the agency is being set up.
In a way, MAFF is indeed two Departments. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) got it wrong, because there is no new bureaucracy here, although it is true that the agency will grow a little from the joint food standards and safety group. It is not generally appreciated 857 how much work goes on in MAFF. I freely admit that, having been a Member of Parliament for more than 20 years, I had no idea when I walked into the Ministry that there were the best part of 300 people in Ergon house and 70 in Skipton house dealing with food matters that are not dealt with by the local authorities.
The work done by MAFF includes that of the additives and novel foods division, which deals with all the issues of sweeteners, flavourings, colourings and chemical migration from packaging; the work of the food hygiene division, which deals with the research and scientific advice on the microbiological safety of food; work on milk and egg hygiene; the surveillance of the food contaminants division, monitoring natural toxicants, microtoxins, environmental contaminants and heavy metals; risk management work; studies of the scientific aspects of food contamination; the work of the food labelling and standards division; the policy studies of the meat hygiene division; the work of the radiological safety and protection of nutrition division; the work of the veterinary public health division; and work on food and welfare.
All that work is being done under central Government. My criticism of the previous Government is that, by and large, I never heard about it. I knew about BSE, E. coli, salmonella and the other crises. No one can criticise the technical and policy work driven by officials inside MAFF—it is second to none—but the public did not know about it because they were overwhelmed by the other work that MAFF had to do on, for example, the common agricultural policy and supporting farmers. The work got hidden away, and the Food Standards Agency is a way of bringing it to the fore.
There has been criticism of the research budget. We are simply transferring the existing budget. I do not get that many complaints. MAFF spends the best part of £130 million on research, out of running costs of less than £700 million. We estimate that about £25 million of that is directly related to food standards and safety. The Department of Health also does parallel work. The agency will have total control of the budget. At present, all the work is contracted out by tender, and even the work that goes in-house has to be fought for by MAFF agencies.
There has been some criticism of the Bill's drafting. I must not criticise the parliamentary draftsmen as I will have to work with them while the Bill is in Committee. The agency, as a quango, is different from all the existing quangos and agencies. It will function as a non-ministerial department and the Bill gives it the right to decide to publish whatever information it controls, and not only advice to Ministers. Obviously, there is a set of procedures to go through, but the agency, not Ministers, will have control. Freedom of information is built into the Bill. That is crucial to the transparency and openness of the agency's operation.
Hon. Members have spoken about the agency's independence from Ministers. It must not be independent from the House; it must report to the House. Its accounting officer will be responsible to the Public Accounts Committee. Any Select Committee can call in Government agencies and the Food Standards Agency will be the prime source of policy making, information and advice for all and sundry and for all Departments and outside bodies, including industry. Select Committees can 858 make inquiries as and when they want. Obviously, the independence of its members will be important and we will need some class people. It will not be a case of learning on the job. The agency will fully conform with the Nolan principles, and advertisements will be placed in the next few days.
I can tell the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) why we are proceeding now, instead of waiting. Our original plan was to proceed last year, in advance of Scottish devolution. There is nothing underhand about the Government's actions. Until the House gives the Bill a Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no legal authority to advertise for the chair and deputy chair. We have the authority to set up the headquarters building, and that is not nugatory. However, we do not want to rush the process of appointment. Over the summer, we will have time to set the agency up with care.
The location of the headquarters will be central London. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) that Professor Philip James recommended that so that the agency was not marginalised from the rest of Government. We announced that important decision some time ago.
The vast majority of the staff will, I hope—and we are engaged in asking the staff their opinion—transfer from the joint food safety and standards group. There will be no compulsion and we will ask for volunteers. Those staff are the experts, who deal with the subjects I mentioned earlier. We will also need some 100 to 150 extra staff and we intend to bring people in from outside to dilute the culture. I believe that we are handing over to the agency a culture of openness and transparency in some of the policy changes that we have made in the past two years, but we can always do better. By diluting the MAFF and Department of Health culture with outsiders, we will move a little further towards that aim.
The meat hygiene charges cannot exceed the inspection service costs, as I hope hon. Members know. The levy has gone, but the Food Safety Act 1990 provides for a charge for the work of enforcement authorities. Treasury rules, however, mean that only the direct costs of enforcement can be recovered. The Bill contains no means to bring in a tax or levy in the way that was originally proposed.
I was not present for the contribution by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), but I was listening downstairs. He made a big point of saying that the agency will be able to do anything, but he did not finish the sentence, which reads:The Agency has power to do anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the exercise of its functions.That is an important qualification. The agency will not have free range: it will be constrained by the legislation and the guiding principles it contains.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who chaired the Committee with distinction, asked about an independent review of the Meat Hygiene Service. It will be subject to the normal quinquennial review, because it is a next steps agency. 859 I am relaxed about that. The one failure of the way that the House has worked in the past is that we have not systematically revisited legislation to ask whether it has done what we intended. Other countries in the European Union do that as a matter of course. The first time we did it was before I became a Member of Parliament, with a review of the redundancy payments legislation.
§ Mr. Rooker
No, I shall not give way. That was unique at the time, Since then, we have revisited the Child Support Agency several times, and that was the result of legislation that was not properly scrutinised because everyone thought it was a good idea. This Government have gone out of their way to consult on this idea on no less than four separate occasions. We want to get it right. The idea is well supported, but we want to be sure that all the right questions are asked.
This is not an anti-trade measure. No one has put it in those terms, but I want to make that clear.
§ Mr. Rooker
No, it has been unspoken, but I want to make it clear that the agency will not discriminate between home-produced and imported foods. It will have no power to do so. Indeed, the Government have no power to do so. Food that is put on sale in this country has to conform to the existing food safety legislation. There are many issues relating to the methods of production of that food abroad, including perhaps welfare conditions, that are debatable. However, to suggest that the agency will allow food to be imported that is less safe but cheaper than our super-safe food, and that people will thereby be poisoned, is nonsense. There is no possibility of that.
§ Mr. Rooker
No, there is not enough time.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said that clause 19 allowed Ministers to make secondary legislation to prevent publication of information. Clause 19 does not give any powers to Ministers, but relates to existing statutory bars.
Clause 25 was also mentioned in that connection. We have searched the relevant legislation to ensure that the Food Standards Agency has access to all the information that it is required to have. For example, veterinary and other products are covered by confidentiality under the Medicines Acts, but the agency will have to have access to that information. Therefore, we have gone through the legislation to lift every statutory bar that we could find. We have included in the Bill provisions that mean that, if we find any other statutory bars to information that we think that the Food Standards Agency should have, the Government will be able to lift them. The reality is the exact opposite of what some have imagined. We want to be absolutely open and transparent.
860 The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) asked about the advice from the Select Committee on Agriculture and whether Ministers should be able to decide about removing the duty of enforcement from local authorities. That responsibility already resides with Ministers under the Food Safety Act 1990. That provision was part of the draft legislation, and remains in this Bill.
The House will understand that the participation of local authorities raises a difficult problem. One of the agency's three new functions is to set standards and to monitor their enforcement by local authorities. There are more than 300 local authorities, with different policies, budgets and concerns. We do not say that they should all be the same, but there must be a degree of consistency, and therefore monitoring.
One would not willingly take away powers from elected authorities, but it is possible that the agency may ask one authority to take over another's work if there is a failure. However, there are many examples around the country of local authorities co-operating and working collectively, and we want that to continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central asked about charging for research. If the research generates results whose patents are of commercial value, the agency, if it so wishes, will be able to sell those results, or to license them to industry. There is nothing wrong with that.
We are continuing to undertake an enormous amount of background work on risk. One of the research contracts that we recently put out for next year's food safety research was for a study of the best way to communicate to the public risk elements related to food. We understand that we have a lot to learn and that we do not have all the answers. Communicating these matters to the public is one of the agency's fundamental tasks. Although bringing about a reduction in food poisoning cases will not be a test of the agency's success—we do not know why such cases are caused, so setting a target for such a reduction is not on—the ability to communicate risks successfully to the public without closing down an industry by accident is very important.
I shall finish by referring to what I took to be an attack by the hon. Member for South Suffolk on the integrity of Sir Robert May and Professor Liam Donaldson. In a letter to the hon. Gentleman, they have made it clear that neither would countenance any interference in the production of medical and scientific assessments. They added that, when the draft of their paper was considered by the Cabinet Committee, they suggested that it needed to be made less technical. They also suggested that it should include reference to the Royal Society's publication on the work of Dr. Pusztai. Such a reference was included in the final draft, and a set of recommendations for the future were also included. They added that at no time was any pressure exerted on them, and I hope that the hon. Member for South Suffolk will apologise to both of those people.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).