HL Deb 05 December 1989 vol 513 cc744-50

3.11 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time. This timely Bill will, I hope, not only remind your Lordships and the public at large about the controls on food safety which are already in place and the steps we are taking to reinforce and enlarge them but also serve to reassure those who have expressed concern about the safety of our food supplies. Incidentally, I am sure your Lordships will welcome the fact that at the same time as strengthening the statute book we shall be reducing its size by repealing no fewer than seven existing Acts.

I am delighted that this Bill is a joint initiative by my present ministry and my old stamping ground, the Department of Health. I need hardly add that it is a great pleasure for me that my noble friend Lady Hooper will be my partner throughout the passage of this Bill. Food safety is a matter on which our departments keep in daily touch because the safety of food production, processing, distribution and sale cannot be separated from the Government's concern to protect public health.

We also keep in close touch with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Unlike the legislation it replaces, the Bill will cover Great Britain as a whole, which makes good sense in the run-up to the single European market. Parallel legislation will be made in Northern Ireland by Order in Council.

As your Lordships would expect, we are taking this opportunity to revise our food legislation, thereby ensuring that the Bill both meets today's needs and is sufficiently flexible to keep up with the pace of new developments in technology. To this end the Bill makes considerable use of enabling powers which will allow us to make regulations to cover the details of a broad range of food safety and consumer protection measures. After further consultation with interested parties, the ensuing regulations will be put before Parliament. The powers will also enable us to implement the growing number of European Community obligations in this area.

Throughout the lengthy deliberations which led up to the Bill, we have never lost sight of our prime objective of protecting the interests of consumers. But we have also given due regard to the needs of businesses. We have therefore tried to avoid placing undue burdens upon them. Moreover, when framing the regulations we shall take particular account of the position of small businesses.

I turn now to the detail of the main provisions. I wonder whether it struck your Lordships, as it did me, as droll that the Food Safety Bill's first clause, which starts by defining the meaning of food etc., should begin by including the words "drink" and: chewing gum and other products of a like nature and use". This part of the definition is drawn from the Food Act 1984. However, many of the Bill's provisions will additionally cover water used in food production; "food sources" such as live animals, live poultry or live fish and materials intended to come into contact with food. Clauses 2 and 3 bring in food that might otherwise fall outside the law. I give two examples. Food given as a prize at a fairground will be caught by Clause 2. Clause 3 will entitle enforcement officers to assume that food they find in a restaurant is for sale to the public unless the proprietor can prove otherwise.

Clause 4 specifies the Ministers who have various functions under the Bill, while Clause 5 identifies the enforcement authorities responsible for food law. Clause 6 provides for Ministers to take over the enforcement functions from local authorities in specific cases or particular types of case.

On the surface these provisions look radically different from those in existing food law. However, the intention is to use them to continue broadly the existing split of responsibilities in England and Wales. It is environmental health officers who deal with the law on unfit food and microbiological contamination of food, while trading standards officers handle other contamination, composition and labelling. However, because the division of duties will be set out in an order rather than in the Bill itself, we shall have greater flexibility.

I turn to the main offences in the Bill. Clauses 7 and 8 make it an offence to render food injurious to health or supply food that fails to meet food safety requirements; that is, food that has been made injurious to health, is unfit for human consumption or is so contaminated as to be unsuitable for human consumption. The terms "injurious to health" and "unfit for human consumption" are enshrined in current food law and thus have the advantage of established case law. The offence of supplying food so contaminated that it would not be reasonable to expect it to be used for human consumption is a new offence which constitutes an additional safeguard for consumers. It makes it quite clear that food can now be considered to be unsuitable for human consumption by reason of serious contamination.

Another crucial feature of the revised offences is that they apply to food in possession for sale. EHOs already enforce the provisions on unfit food in the factory, but it obviously makes sense for enforcement officers to check products throughout the production stage, as well as at the point of retail. This is also necessary to meet our obligations under the EC Official Control of Foodstuffs Directive.

Clause 8 also introduces another important aid to enforcement. It contains a presumption that if any part of any batch of food is shown not to comply with food safety requirements, then the whole of that batch does not comply. The onus is placed on the owner to prove that the remainder of the batch is safe for human consumption.

Clause 9 strengthens existing powers for enforcement officers to inspect, detain and seize food and apply to a justice of the peace for an order that the food be condemned. If food is not condemned, then the enforcement authority will have to pay compensation equal to any consequent loss in the value of the food.

Clauses 10 and 11 provide various new or revised powers to ensure that food businesses operate in accordance with any regulations made concerning manufacturing processes or hygiene. Enforcement officers may issue improvement notices requiring any deficiencies to be put right over a time period, which they will specify. What is more, if a breach of regulations has led to a conviction the court may, if necessary to protect health, issue an order prohibiting the use of all or part of the offending premises. In certain circumstances the prohibition order can also apply to the proprietor.

Clause 12 allows premises to be closed immediately if they pose an imminent risk of danger to health. An enforcement officer can impose an emergency prohibition notice which, provided he applies to take the issue to court within three days, remains in force until the court has considered his action. The court can ratify this action by imposing an emergency prohibition order, or can if it disagrees order compensation to be paid to the owner of the premises.

Clause 13 enables Ministers to make emergency control orders. These are not intended as a way of dealing with each and every food scare. However, from time to time there may be serious incidents which present an imminent threat to health and require a rapid, nationally co-ordinated response. We hope to continue to deal with most contamination incidents under existing voluntary arrangements. Indeed, even if the statutory powers were used the measures to be taken would be of the sort that any conscientious person would seek to take voluntarily; for instance, the withdrawal from sale of adulterated wine.

However, statutory powers need to be available, notably to cover those situations where voluntary co-operation is not forthcoming. The emergency powers will stand alongside those available under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 which enable us to tackle food contamination which occurs in a specific geographical area. The recent problems over lead in cattle food have demonstrated our ability to respond swiftly and effectively to emergencies. The new powers will enhance that ability.

Clauses 14 and 15 set out the offences relating to consumer protection. It will continue to be an offence to sell food which is not of the nature, substance or quality which the purchaser demands. It will continue to be an offence to sell, and will become an offence to possess for sale, food which is falsely described or presented.

Clause 16 gives wide powers to Ministers to regulate in relation to food safety, hygiene and consumer protection. Many of these powers feature in existing legislation, and the body of regulations under our existing powers will continue in force for the present. However, these powers will be clarified and strengthened. We shall be able to control food composition; for example, restricting or prohibiting the use of certain additives. We shall be able to control microbiological standards, food processes and treatments, food hygiene and the commercial import or export of specific foods.

Moreover, as will be apparent if your Lordships turn to Schedule 1, paragraph 5(3), we shall for the first time have powers to regulate the training of those who handle food, and Clause 23 enables local authorities to provide or finance such training. My honourable friend the Member for Kettering, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, is today issuing a consultation paper on this subject. Regulations will also be able to specify labelling requirements. In this connection, your Lordships may wish to note the review of food labelling recently announced by my honourable friend the Member for Penrith and the Border, the food Minister, which is to be carried out by the Food Advisory Committee.

Many of these regulations will also be able to cover food ingredients and food sources, such as live animals. For example, we shall be able to place controls on live animals that have been treated in such a way that there is a risk of veterinary residues occurring in food as a consequence. It will also be possible to regulate in respect of materials intended to come into contact with foods, from cling-film to brewers' vats.

There is also an important provision in the Bill which relates to the United Kingdom's membership of the European Community. Clause 17 enables Ministers to make any new regulations which may be necessary to fulfil Community obligations in this area. In most cases we should be able to act using the powers I have already described. However, Clause 17 will make certain that we can respond to any new Community obligations which may emerge at some future time.

Clause 18 will permit regulations to set appropriate controls on novel foods or food sources. Foods as diverse as new exotic fruits and genetically manipulated yeasts would come under the scope of this power. However, we shall certainly not want to use these powers unless this is necessary since both consumers and the industry benefit greatly from product innovation.

Clause 18 allows regulations to ban the import of a specified class of food, subject to exceptions. We see the need to use this power with respect to imports from the Community diminishing as the single market develops; and in particular as the Official Control of Foodstuffs Directive brings together the controls applied by all member states. But there are some important arrangements for milk which will need to continue. Clause 18 also allows regulations controlling the sales of milk by prescribing special designations. These featured at length in the 1984 Act and the details will now be transferred to regulations.

Clause 19 will enable Ministers to make regulations to require food premises to be registered or additionally to operate in accordance with a licence. We expect to apply registration to the majority of food businesses, including all of a commercial and permanent nature. They will be required to give basic details of the nature of their operation, enabling enforcement officers to build a clear picture of the food and catering industry in their area and hence to help set enforcement priorities.

The purpose of licensing is very different. Let me explain it by reference to food irradiation. Food irradiation under strictly controlled conditions has a very useful role to play in enhancing food safety; for example, it can be used to destroy pests and bacteria in produce such as herbs and spices. The scientific case for its carefully controlled use is overwhelming and it is already used in over 20 countries around the world. However, the process is highly technical and requires special expertise to operate properly. We intend therefore to require that the irradiation of food is only carried out in accordance with the terms of a licence. However, consumer choice is the name of the game, and the crucial condition will be a requirement for full, clear labelling of irradiated food.

Clause 20 enables enforcement authorities to bypass an apparent offender whose offence was the fault of another and prosecute instead the real offender. Clause 21 provides a statutory defence for a defendant who can show that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid committing an offence. The clause also allows defendants to be deemed to have shown due diligence in particular circumstances. The effect of this is to make a due diligence defence easier to establish for those who are buying in food from the manufacturer or importer. These people should be able to rely to some extent on information from the supplier in question, provided of course that they do not introduce contamination themselves.

I hope that your Lordships have found my outline of the Food Safety Bill's main provisions useful. I will discuss the more important aspects of the remaining clauses in rather less detail. Clause 25 enables Ministers by order to require businesses to provide information and to permit the taking of food samples. This will strengthen the Government's food surveillance programme which currently rests upon voluntary arrangements. Clauses 27 to 30 deal with aspects of the administration of enforcement work and the arrangements for obtaining and analysing or examining samples of food, food sources or contact materials.

Clause 32 sets out the powers of entry available to enforcement officers. It sets out an offence of unauthorised disclosure of information obtained when using the powers of entry. Clause 33 also contains an offence, that of intentional obstruction of an enforcement officer. It requires that in some circumstances a person may be obliged to give information to an enforcement officer although no one will be required to incriminate themselves.

Clause 34 lays down the time limits for prosecutions. Clause 35 sets down penalties, some of them at a level very significantly greater than in existing legislation. With the exception of obstruction it will be possible to try all offences in the crown court and the maximum penalties will be two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. If cases are taken in magistrates' courts, the maximum penalties for the main offences will be six months in prison and/or a fine of £20,000. Clauses 37 and 38 lay down the circumstances under which appeals may be made to the magistrates' court or crown court.

In Scotland all offences would normally be tried in the sheriff court, but with discretion to refer the most serious offences to a higher court. The penalties for all offences will be the same as in England and Wales.

Codes of recommended practice may be drawn up by Ministers under Clause 39. The codes will guide food authorities in their enforcement work and will be developed in consultation with enforcement interests through an implementation advisory committee. Food authorities will have to take due notice of these codes in carrying out their functions and to comply with any directions issued by Ministers which specify how the codes are to be implemented. The intention is to use guidelines to obtain an even application of the law. The Government have no intention of taking away from local authorities their responsibility to control their own budgets.

The question of resources for local authorities is obviously an important one, and we recognise that the Bill will create additional costs for the local authorities who will need extra staff to carry out their new duties fully and effectively. We estimate that the cost is likely to be of the order of £30 million a year from 1991–92 onwards. This will be taken into account in next year's revenue support grant settlement. This is a very good response by the Government.

Clause 54 allows certain parts of the Bill to bind the Crown with limited exemptions. Your Lordships will be interested to hear that the Houses of Parliament will be caught within the Act as the exemption applies only to national security, to Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, in their private capacities. Clause 59 enables Ministers to bring the new legislation into effect on such days as they may choose, apart from a few provisions, notably those related to emergencies, which will have immediate effect. In general, we would hope to have most sections of the legislation, and the main regulations which follow, in place during the 1990–91 Parliamentary Session.

Food and its safety seem to have been the flavour of many months in the media, and certain matters have recently raised special interest. As your Lordships will be aware, my right honourable friend the Minister recently announced the establishment within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of a food safety directorate. The 700 or so people who make up the directorate draw together the scientists and administrators dealing with the whole gamut of food safety, standards and consumer protection issues.

My right honourable friend also announced the setting up of a consumer panel to keep under review the working of food policies. It will enable the food Minister to hear directly and regularly from consumer representatives. The new panel complements the existing expert committees and the contacts the Minister has with all the other organisations interested in food safety. It does not in any way replace them.

We firmly believe that we should base our conclusions concerning food safety on the best scientific advice available. We firmly believe that our reasons for actions should be logical and open. Parliament requires this of us. By submitting this Bill to your Lordships, we believe that we are updating and improving our food safety legislation not just for 1990, but for the foreseeable future. The Government attach considerable importance to this Bill. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Baroness Trumpington.)

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down may I ask whether she can arrange for an answer to be given at the end of the debate concerning the problem of private parties which hire a room and take in their own food? If the food does not come up to standard, then who is responsible? Is it the owner of the room, or the suppliers?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I should have thought that my noble friend would be aware that my noble friend Lady Hooper will reply to all questions if delivered at the proper time.

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