HL Deb 30 July 1997 vol 582 cc172-4

2.47 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend that the Food Standards Agency should have lay representation on all its expert committees.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, the Government believe that lay representatives will have an important role to play in the expert committees advising the Food Standards Agency, and will be considering that further as plans for the agency are developed.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that assurance. I listened carefully to hear whether he said yes, there would be lay representation on expert committees or yes, he would consider there being lay representation on the committees. I imagine I heard the former rather than the latter. I understand that a paper will come to this House and the agency will not be up and running until 1999. I hope to ask many Questions on this subject during the intervening time.

Will the Minister agree that it is the wall that has been raised between expert committees and consumer committees in the past that has caused so much trouble, whereby it is thought that consumers are not intelligent enough to work out what the experts will say on the expert committees? Does he agree that the committee on novel foods and processes and the committee on medical aspects of food and nutritional policy have made a valuable contribution to the work thus far?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, one of the consolations of this office is being able to look forward to exchanges with the noble Baroness. My right honourable friend in another place is making a response today to a Written Question setting out many of our proposals for the new food safety agency. We totally support in principle the idea of lay representation. The response will state that openness and transparency will be one of the agency's principal criteria. As for its advisory committees, it will be an independent agency and I assume that it will begin by involving the existing advisory committees, mainly from MAFF. We propose to strengthen the role of the Food Advisory Committee, which already has two lay representatives and will have more.

As the noble Baroness knows, there are seven MAFF advisory committees relating to food, four of which already have lay representatives. The three that do not, including the Veterinary Products Committee and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, are looking actively and canvassing for members. I hope that by the end of the year they will have been announced. SEAC is also looking actively. I hope by the end of the year all seven committees will have lay representatives. We are looking for members and hope that Members of this House, including the noble Baroness, will submit names of representatives. I am not accountable to the Department of Health for the committees, especially the, three notorious acronyms—COT, COM and COC. At present those committees do not have lay representatives.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, will the Minister note that I entirely support what my noble friend Lady Wilcox said? A modicum of common sense is worth a great deal of expertise. It is very much lacking at present in food nutritional labelling, which is unintelligible. The problem is exacerbated by the dreadful Euro-numbers—indeed, one needs a translation book to understand them. Will he undertake that, if a comprehensible and easily intelligible form of nutritional labelling is proposed by the committee, he will not allow our partners in the Community to override it?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, that is one of the many reasons why we support lay representatives. Labelling will be a factor. I am sure that the new committee will bear in mind what the noble Baroness has said. On the European role, food safety is basically a Europe-determined policy.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware how much I appreciate the breath of fresh air that seems to be flowing through MAFF at the moment? As well as bringing lay membership into the committees, are the Government considering broadening the scientific base, as I suggested in my speech of 24th June when I suggested that perhaps young Ph.Ds might also be co-opted onto the committees?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Countess for her kind remarks. I also thank her because she has been responsible for much of the momentum in changing the situation and attitudes in this area. We are looking at broadening the scientific base—I know this is an area in which she is interested. We propose to put lay members very shortly on two subordinate committees to the Advisory Committee on Pesticides—the Pesticides Forum and the Working Party on Pesticide Residues.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, desirable though the aims of this agency may be, is the noble Lord aware that there is a certain amount of apprehension that its activities could develop into a nightmare of officiousness and bureaucracy? I just wonder which of the noble Lord's colleagues will have the rather difficult task of restraining the excessive enthusiasm that the agency may be tempted to show.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's concerns. We do not wish that to be the outcome. The basic reason for the agency is that we need greater monitoring and enforcement in the area of food safety. It is a matter of great public concern. It is my honourable friend the Minister for Food Safety who will have particular responsibility. I shall certainly have a word with him about what the noble Lord has said.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, as someone who has been involved in trading standards for many years, I am delighted that the Government will be pursuing the concept of setting up a Food Standards Agency. Will it be supplied with an effective monitoring force to ensure that its decisions are properly carried out?

Lord Donoughue

Yes, my Lords, monitoring is firmly at the forefront of its agenda. It may help the House if I point out that we have had a consultation period. There were 630 or so responses. There will be a White Paper in the autumn which will be followed by another consultation period. We will then publish the Bill, which will be brought before the House as soon as parliamentary time is available.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we entirely support the announcements that the noble Lord has made today and the direction in which his policy is taking us, as he will know from our contribution to the debate of the noble Countess, Lady Mar. Can he confirm that he will be repeating in this House, as we made a practice of doing, the Answer to the Written Question given in another place so that on these important matters this House can be informed as well as another place? Does he intend that the Food Standards Agency should follow the American practice whereby all points made to the agency in the course of its consultations—by interest groups, individuals and so on—are answered on the record point by point so that they are available for public scrutiny?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support, previously and now. That has been helpful to us in shifting any possible resistance that may have existed. There will be a Written Answer to the Question tabled in this House. As to the American practices, a number of the aspects of the working of the proposed Food Standards Agency are still under active consideration. However, the suggestion he has made could be a fruitful one. I am sure we shall look at it.