§ 2.55 p.m.
§ Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether public health would be better protected if the safety and quality of the nation's food was the responsibility of an independent agency.
My Lords, the Government believe that food safety is of such importance that Ministers should remain directly responsible and accountable to Parliament.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, is the Minister aware that his reply perfectly illustrates the Government's complacency as regards food safety? Is he further aware that in a recent survey 49 per cent. of those surveyed believed that government departments were the least trustworthy in giving impartial advice on food safety? There is now increasing support among consumers, farmers and those in the food industry for the Labour Party proposal first made in 1988 for an independent food standards agency. With all that has happened since 20th March, when will the Government accept the need for a radical overhaul of our food policy?
My Lords, I do not believe that I recall seeing any details of the Labour Party's policy. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has not either and I suspect that they do not exist—
My Lords, what would such an independent agency be except remote from government and unaccountable? In our opinion, that is entirely unacceptable in such an importance part of government and daily life.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Lord's supplementary question contained an awful warning for us all as to what might happen if a Labour Government were returned to Parliament? We would then be festooned with agencies interfering in almost every human activity.
My Lords, it is possible to interpret the Labour Party's policy as being either 1445 extremely dangerous or extremely woolly. If it is extremely dangerous and if applied over the past few years we would have no beef industry, no poultry or egg industry and, I am sorry to tell my noble friend, we would have no blue cheese.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, irrespective of what Labour Party policies may or may not be on this matter, the public perception is that there ought to be a division of responsibility in government for safeguarding the interests of the producers of food and safeguarding the interests of the consumers of food? Will the Government give serious consideration to that aspect?
My Lords, there is always an argument about how in practice one should divide things in government. If the noble Lord will look across the pond to the United States, which has an agency which appears in some way to be that separate agency about which the noble Lord is talking, he will see that it takes a great deal of account of the interests of the industry, as it must, because that is in the interests of consumers. For instance, the FDA is taking two years and a lot of consultation before it will ban the use of mammalian protein in ruminant feeds. It may not even come to that end. In practice, there is no difference between the way the FDA operates and the way in which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food operates in this country. We both put public safety and public health first. To our mind, the Ministry does it very well in this country.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, however unreasonable the Minister may believe it to be, is it not the case that public confidence in the present system is not as good as it might be? What do the Government propose to do to restore that confidence in the interests of all the industries concerned in this country?
My Lords, I believe that the best way to restore public confidence is to act in a way which deserves it. I believe that that is what we are doing. Of course, the public are reasonably sceptical about official advice and that is not something which troubles me. I cannot see that anything which might be in the proposal made by the Labour Party would in any way increase or deserve increased consumer confidence.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I was not discussing the Labour Party's proposals. I was discussing the present situation which the Government are supposed to be handling.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, is the Minister aware that each of the proposals which the Labour Party has made since 1988 were rubbished by the Government at the time and that most of them are now government policy? On 20th March we made eight proposals which were rubbished by the Prime Minister the next day, but most of them are now government policy. Will the Minister tell the House why agencies are regarded as suitable for health and safety and environmental protection, but an agency to protect consumers from unsafe food is not?
My Lords, what the noble Lord's colleague on the Back-Benches has said illustrates 1446 exactly the difference. It is an issue in which consumers and the public have a direct interest and for which Ministers should be directly accountable to Parliament.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, if the Government are so pleased with the Ministry why was it necessary to appoint a special troubleshooter, Mr. Freeman, to correct the mistakes of the Ministers concerned?
My Lords, I am entirely at sea as to what the noble Lord is referring. I am not aware that that has anything to do with the Question on the Order Paper.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, is not one of the problems that the newspapers run columns by doctors and others always stressing the dangers of one particular food or another so that if we really followed that advice, we should be on a starvation diet? Has the Minister read a book—and here I declare an interest at once—written by my son-in-law, Dr. Le Fanu, who entitled his book Eat Your Heart Out?
My Lords, I am very sorry to say that I have not read the book by the noble Lord's son-in-law. I shall try to obtain a copy from the Library, if it is classified as non-fiction of course. The position taken by the media is rather extraordinary. If one were to believe what they said on food safety, we should all be adopting policies from which the Germans currently suffer and which the newspapers now say we should shrink from.