HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc832-8

Lords amendment: No. 6, in page 6, line 13, leave out subsection (3) and insert— ("(3) Each annual report of the Agency shall contain a report on its activities during the year in enforcing any relevant legislation for which it is the enforcement authority and its performance in respect of—

  1. (a) any standards under subsection (2) that apply to those activities; and
  2. (b) any objectives relating to those activities that are specified in the statement of objectives and practices under section 22.")

Ms Quin

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 15.

Ms Quin

The Government accepted these two amendments, which were tabled by Cross-Bench and Opposition peers. Lords amendment No. 6 relates to the requirement on the agency to report in its annual report on its own performance as an enforcement authority. That relates primarily to the performance of the Meat Hygiene Service, which was extensively debated in the House and by the Special Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron).

11.45 pm

The Government have made it clear throughout that they believe that it is right that the MHS, which is responsible for enforcement in a key area of food safety, should be part of the agency, but we also made it clear that we believe that it should be subject to rigorous audit of its performance—that point was made strongly by my predecessor—and that its officers should behave reasonably, in accordance with the principles of better regulation.

Amendment No. 6 will put in the Bill the clear requirement that the agency should include in its report to Parliament information on its activities where it acts as an enforcement authority in relation to specific standards which will be set for its performance, and in relation to specific objectives and practices included in the agency's statement of objectives and practices, which, as hon. Members know, is required by clause 22. We have made it clear that those objectives will include compliance with the better regulation principles. We believe that that will contribute to greater openness about the performance of the MHS, which has been of concern to Members on both sides of the House. I therefore hope that the House will agree that the amendment is helpful and will improve the Bill.

In a similar vein, amendment No. 15 requires that the agency's agreed statement of objectives and practices be laid before Parliament and the devolved legislatures. That will make a helpful contribution to openness. We expect the agency to consult interested bodies on its statement before it is finalised. I stress that the amendment was tabled by the Opposition—by Baroness Byford—and the Government believe that it will improve the Bill.

Mr. Paice

The right hon. Lady is right: the amendment represents an improvement to the Bill—obviously we support it, because it was tabled by my noble Friend—but I must tell her that the improvement is tiny. It goes nowhere towards addressing the real concerns expressed by Conservative Members throughout the earlier stages of the Bill's consideration about the MHS and the dual role of enforcement and monitoring authority that the Food Standards Agency will play. It does not tell us how the two roles will be separated in practice—nor have the Government produced any convincing reason for their rejection of the advice of the Special Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), to which the Minister referred.

We also need to question MHS charges. At present, as I understand it, the Minister has to approve all charges—at least her predecessor regularly told the House that he had not yet approved any rises, so we assume that he had the power to do so if he needed to. If the MHS is to go into the FSA, what controls will there be on charging? If the annual report is published in the way described in the amendment, will it include, for example, separate MHS accounts and a schedule of charges and how they have been arrived at so that people can see transparently what is going on?

Given that a slaughterhouse is closing every week under this Government, it is time that we had much more transparency in respect of the charges made for meat hygiene inspection. The House will be aware that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food himself has announced studies of comparative costs and charges in abattoirs in other countries. If that matter is to be dealt with by the MHS, is the right hon. Gentleman wasting his time? Will he have any powers to do anything, even if he uncovers evidence showing, as we believe, that British abattoirs are being treated unfairly? If not, and if the Meat Hygiene Service is to have total control over its charging mechanisms, it is essential that it be transparent and that the report for which amendment No. 6 provides covers all those possibilities. We may then be able to put an end to the constant arguments about the level of charges. Under this Government, however, I do not see that happening.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the Minister both talked about the need for transparency. The Meat Hygiene Service and the Food Standards Agency will deal with some of the most sensitive issues relating to the food chain.

The Minister said that the report would be published and laid before Parliament. She knows, however, that a great number of statutorily required reports are laid before Parliament, but that no effort is made to debate their content. Given the importance of the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and the importance of the work of the Food Standards Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service, will the Minister assure us that the report will not just be laid before Parliament, but tabled for a proper debate in Government time so that we can examine many of the sensitive issues that my hon. Friend outlined?

Dr. Brand

Hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the creation of the Food Standards Agency, because we all see the need to restore confidence in British food. To achieve that, it is essential that we have openness and transparency. That is why I welcome the amendments.

The annual report should not just look back at the events of the previous year, but should look forward and give us a business plan and a budget for the following year. One of our concerns is that the Meat Hygiene Service could take over all the energies and resources of the Food Standards Agency and, so, defeat the very purpose for which the agency was set up. Will the Minister assure us that the report relating to the Meat Hygiene Service will show clearly the resources that the service will use, so that we can see that the other arm of the agency is protected?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am beginning to wonder whether the amendment is totally fatuous. The more I listen to the words of praise echoing around the Chamber about it, the more it occurs to me that it will be utterly useless. The clue to my suspicion came from the Minister, who said that it would contribute to openness. That immediately makes me suspicious, as it is completely meaningless. Matters became even worse when the right hon. Lady said that she expected the agency to consult. There seems to be no obligation on the agency to consult in this part of the process; it is simply a ministerial expectation. That is not good enough.

As if that were not bad enough, the amendment will oblige a copy of the statement approved by the agency to be laid before Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly"— "laid before", no more. One can only conclude that there will be a process, possibly of consultation—we do not know; the Minister hopes so, but nothing obliges it—and the agency will reach its own conclusions about its objectives. There will be no outside check on that process. Then, in a grand gesture of openness, the agency will lay its conclusions before Parliaments and Assemblies.

Following the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), there the process ends. A report, about which no consultation was needed, is laid before Parliament. We all know that that could well be a completely meaningless part of the process.

In my more negative moments—there are few, I admit, but every now and again, during debates such as this, a bit of negativity arises—I ask myself what all this means, and where it is leading us. Will it advance the process in any way? Here is yet another piece of paper—another document. No doubt it will be available in the Vote Office; no doubt Members will be able to apprise themselves of its contents. But will the process go any further? If my right hon. Friend's proposal is not taken up, and if the Minister cannot give us an absolute undertaking that something will complete the process, it will have no meaning.

Why are we all gathered here, praising the amendment—which originated in another place—when, on the face of it, it has no meaning whatever? It constitutes yet another layer of bureaucracy: yet another part of the process, which will add nothing to the ensuring of food safety—or, I think, to the role that the House likes to think it takes upon itself in scrutinising the Government and holding them accountable. There is no provision for scrutiny, or for holding to the Government to account.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I do not know why my right hon. Friend is worried. Like all the other annual reports produced by quangos, this report will be sent to my right hon. Friend as a matter of course, because he is a Member of Parliament. He will pass it quickly across his desk into the nearest wastepaper bin, where it will remain unread by numerous Members of Parliament. What is the point?

Mr. Forth

May I make a plea, following my hon. Friend's remarks? I do not wish to receive a copy of the document; I should be very distressed if I did. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has the gall to suggest that it might be sent by e-mail. I do not know what that is, and I do not know whether I would receive any of it either. What I do not want is for my time to be wasted by my being sent a copy of a document that has so little meaning. If it stops at the Vote Office, at least I will have discretion in regard to whether I wish to peruse it. That would be something.

My plea is this: unless the Minister can reassure us that the amendment will have greater meaning than I have suggested, I think we should reject it. It will provide for an additional layer of bureaucracy and an additional unnecessary procedure that will do nothing to reassure the public about the safety of our food.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

The Minister described the amendment as an improvement. I am not sure that it is an improvement; I see little substantial difference between the original subsection (3) and the present subsection (3). Indeed, the key word "performance" in the old subsection is left out of the new subsection.

What really concerns me, however, is the Minister's attempt to defend the amendment on the ground that it strengthens the audit of the Meat Hygiene Service. I think that she used the words "as a regulatory practice". In my view, the real difficulty lies in the fact that we are allowing one regulatory authority to approve the regulatory performance of another. In other words, the audit will not be independent. Feed regulators will be assessing the performance of a food regulation agency, namely the Meat Hygiene Service, and I do not think that that is satisfactory.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I do not think that the amendment goes far enough. I would have liked to see some kind of independent audit of the performance of the Meat Hygiene Service, not least because it is the key service in relation to charging. When, some years ago, I visited the headquarters of the service in York, I was struck by its complete independence in regard to fees. It was for the Minister to decide in the end, but it was entirely for the MHS to propose.

The amendment does nothing to protect the service's clients against the increases in charges which we have seen in recent years, and could go on seeing. Surely we need a much more independent audit to establish whether the MHS is providing good value for money, and the good regulation that the Minister and the House want.

12 midnight

Mr. Paterson

The Meat Hygiene Service reminds me of a tax farm under the Bourbons. It has a free remit to extend its area of operation and the more it extends that area of operation, the more money it can raise.

I have a copy of its report for last year. It is beautifully printed and expensively produced—and glib. It has a list of targets and—surprise, surprise—a list of results. Each one has the stamp "Achieved". Further on there is a glossy photograph of an employee called John, who has worked for the Meat Hygiene Service since its inception. He says: The Meat Hygiene Service training courses and videos have enabled me to perform my enforcement duties with confidence. This, combined with good working relations at the plants I visit has enabled to maintain high standards of hygiene and strict compliance with legislation.

That is entirely different from the world portrayed in letters that people have sent me. One letter from an abattoir says that its charges have increased from£300 per year to£17,000 per year. That means inspection fees of£180 per tonne. The letter says: Were we a large, full-throughput plant, the comparative cost would be around£1 per tonne. Another letter says: we are charged almost£40 for these people and they know as much about a turkey as I know about a llama, it makes you want to 'spit', especially when you are aware that the government are seemingly hell bent on increasing these charges, some by as much as a staggering 80 per cent. We had at our site one particular Iberian who found out after almost two months that the turkeys we exclusively process weren't the chickens he thought they were, and there are many more equally ludicrous examples.

The report serves no purpose. It is purely a publicity pamphlet for the quango. We need an independently audited report, properly debated in Parliament. I should also like a statement on the appeal mechanisms. We hear that in informal discussions with the industry the Government are coming round to the idea of having an appeal mechanism. As we said in Committee, it is not good enough to have the Food Standards Agency in charge of the Meat Hygiene Service. The gamekeeper cannot also act as the poacher. What is the audit mechanism to ensure an independent report? What appeal mechanism is there to allow crushed, benighted little firms to avoid being put out of business by the quango? The number of abattoirs has gone down in the past couple of years from 4,000 to 350. That has happened partly because of the quango.

Ms Quin

I am somewhat surprised by the content of some of the speeches that I have just heard, because the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), speaking for the Official Opposition, said rather grudgingly that this was a small amendment. Other Opposition Members have described it as fatuous—I think that that was the expression used by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—or meaningless. That is surprising, because the amendment was moved eloquently by Baroness Byford in the other place. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst seems to think it extraordinary that he should be expected to support an amendment put forward by his party. I find it surprising that he does not support it.

Many of the questions that hon. Members have raised were answered by the former Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), in the debate on 22 July. However, given some of the questions that have been raised, it is important to repeat some of the points that he made. He spelled out the separation of roles for the audit of the Meat Hygiene Service. That will be achieved in a number of ways. The veterinary public health unit, which audits the Meat Hygiene Service, will be separated within the Food Standards Agency. There will also be a separate supervisory committee. There are also audits by the European Commission and the state veterinary service, as well as the financial audit by the National Audit Office. I am rather surprised that Opposition Members did not refer to these.

On controls on charging, charges will still be set ultimately by Ministers, as now. Any changes to the charges will be subject to consultation, as now.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Could my hon. Friend assure me that where the private sector is employed by the Meat Hygiene Service, that also will be subject to audit and account?

Ms Quin

As far as I know, it should be. However, the best thing would be for me to write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library, so that he knows the exact position.

On charging, I must stress that the Meat Hygiene Service will continue to produce its own separate accounts—a point raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand).

Of course the House will be able to debate the annual report—and any of the reports contained within that—if it wishes. Owing to the interest across the House in the work of the Meat Hygiene Service, it is obvious that Members will use existing methods to raise concerns and to make sure that the issues presented to them in annual reports can be debated fully.

The Meat Hygiene Service will have to produce its own accounts, and account for the way in which it has used its resources. The agency will consult on its clause 22 statement. These measures all provide excellent opportunities to deal with the points raised by hon. Members.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 7 agreed to.

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