HL Deb 14 January 1998 vol 584 cc1079-94

4.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"I should like to make a Statement about our plans for a Food Standards Agency. Copies of this Statement and the White Paper will be available when I sit down. Public consultation on Professor Philip James's report on how such a body should operate demonstrated an overwhelming consensus on the need to reform the way in which food safety and standards are handled in government. There is widespread support for the principle of separating responsibility for promoting food safety from responsibility for sponsoring the food and farming industries.

"The Government have drawn up detailed proposals for the Food Standards Agency in the light of the responses to Professor James's recommendations. Those recommendations provided an excellent foundation for this White Paper. I pay tribute to Professor James for his work. Today, I am delighted to be able to present our proposals to the House, on behalf of all the UK agriculture and health Ministers, in a government White Paper, The Food Standards Agency: A Force For Change. I particularly appreciate the support of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health during the drafting of the White Paper. Thanks are also due to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who chaired the Committee.

"These proposals are genuinely radical and modernising. They are part of the wider process of reform which we are driving forward across the whole spectrum of government. They are very much in tune with our core objective of making government more open and accountable as the basis for public trust in public services and institutions.

"Every family and individual in the land has a direct interest in food safety and food standards. It has long been clear that thorough-going reform of the government machinery for handling these issues is needed if public confidence is to be properly restored. We have quickly grasped this challenge. We have already made important changes to the way in which food safety and standards are tackled during the eight months since we took office. We have ensured that my department and that of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health work effectively as a team together with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have significantly increased the amount and quality of information which we make public.

"Our proposals for the Food Standards Agency highlight our plans to strengthen and make transparent how government deal with these vital matters. They represent a radical approach in which the clear priority is to protect public health. The agency will be a powerful new body, able to publish its advice to Ministers, free of vested interests and able to act clearly and decisively at all stages of the food chain. It will be directed by a group of independent commissioners, who will provide an authoritative and wide range of expertise. They will work together in the public interest to lead an agency which promotes the supply of food that meets the standards consumers expect and ensures that people have the information they need to make proper choices for themselves about the food they eat. Consumers will rightly always decide for themselves about their diet. The agency will aim to help people who want to be healthier to choose a suitable diet; it will not tell people what they must eat.

"Every business from the farm, the small shopkeeper to the largest supermarket has a direct interest, too, in ensuring confidence in food. They will gain from an agency which, because it is able to deal effectively with genuine food safety problems in order to protect consumers, will also have the credibility to reassure consumers when risks have been misrepresented or overblown.

"The agency's functions will include formulation of policy advice, preparation of draft legislation, negotiation in the EU and other international bodies. research, surveillance, public information and the monitoring of food law enforcement. Its remit will extend across the whole food chain. Where it does not have full operational responsibility, in aspects of farming practices, it will have powers to intervene if it considers that the action taken by other bodies, including the Ministry of Agriculture, does not provide sufficient safeguards for the human food chain. The Meat Hygiene Service will report to the agency rather than to agriculture Ministers.

"The agency will be able to draw on the expertise of the network of independent scientific advisory committees, including a new advisory committee on animal feedingstuffs—recommended as long ago as 1992—which will advise both the agency and agriculture departments.

"By eliminating the confusion and uncertainty that have for too long surrounded the arrangements for dealing with food safety and standards issues, the agency will be able to deliver real benefits to consumers, retailers and the food industry alike. In doing so, it will need to command the confidence of all those who have an interest in its work. The agency will achieve this by adopting the best available authoritative scientific advice; by acting in a way that is open, consultative and transparent, and by ensuring that the public has access to intelligible and consistent information about risk. The guiding principles which will govern the agency's actions are set out in the White Paper and will be enshrined in the legislation that brings it into being. They will provide the framework to ensure that the agency will act responsibly and proportionately in the public interest.

"The Food Standards Agency will be fully accountable for its actions to the public and to Parliament. It will report to Parliament through health Ministers but will also work closely with the other departments of government that have an interest in its work. This will include the Ministry of Agriculture, which will retain responsibility for sponsorship of the food industry. The agency will routinely publish the basis for its advice. This will ensure that the public interest is clearly being served when policy decisions are taken and regulations proposed. The appropriate Select Committees of both Houses would of course be able to call the chair of the commission and the agency's chief executive to give evidence.

"The particular interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be fully covered. The Food Standards Agency will be responsible for advising the Government on the UK policy framework on food standards and safety matters. However, we recognise that issues of particular interest to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland arise. We therefore propose that new, independent advisory committees will be formed in each of these countries to provide a focus for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests in food standards, and to advise the agency's commission and the respective Secretaries of State, or their successors from a devolved parliament or assembly. We will also establish Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish executives within the UK agency to take responsibility for the existing food safety and standards functions carried out by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices.

"The agency will need to be properly resourced. The White Paper makes clear that the Government intend to pursue new methods of raising some of the necessary expenditure from the food sector. We intend to consult closely with all those who would be affected, including, of course, the small business sector, in drawing up our detailed proposals.

"The publication of this White Paper is the commencement of the next phase of public debate. Establishing an agency with such important, wide-ranging responsibilities is a complex process. We will again be consulting with interested parties across the food chain, to ensure that the Food Standards Agency will work effectively in practice and command respect from all those who have an interest in its work. The White Paper is being circulated widely for comment today. My right honourable friends and I look forward to discussing the way forward with all stakeholders over the coming weeks.

"The responses to this consultation will inform the drafting of the Bill to establish the agency. The draft Bill will be circulated for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny later this year. The Bill will be brought before Parliament as soon as the legislative programme permits. In the meantime, the Government are already putting the principles by which the agency will operate into practice. We will continue to ensure that the period of transition is managed successfully. We propose in particular to begin to put into place the agency's governing body on a shadow basis at an appropriate stage in the passage of the legislation through Parliament.

"Today's White Paper contains a radical, coherent, responsible set of proposals for delivering one of our most important manifesto commitments. The Food Standards Agency will constitute a force that is dedicated to working systematically and constructively with all who are involved with the supply of food to the consumer to ensure better food safety standards. The time for change is long overdue. I commend our proposals to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.44 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement which announces these important proposals for establishing a new Food Standards Agency. Let me begin by saying that we very much welcome the emphasis which the Government are placing on safeguarding the interests of consumers. There is absolutely no doubt that shortcomings in food safety, originating from all stages of the food chain, have become a source of increasing concern in recent years as is evidenced by the rising trend in reported cases of food poisoning.

The irony is that that trend has occurred at a time when technology has greatly assisted the food industry in improving standards of food hygiene and at a time when both food production and food retailing have been subject to ever-tighter regimes of regulation. As a former MAFF Minister, I know from my dealings with the food industry and the major UK retailers that for them food quality is of paramount importance. At the same time, both MAFF and the Department of Health have never been more active in promoting food safety to the consumer. Yet despite all that, throughout the UK food pathogens and in particular the prime culprits salmonella, campylobacter and e-coli 157 are continuing to cause an unacceptable incidence of human illness and even in the worst cases of death.

That is the broad background against which the Government have published their proposals. It would be quite wrong of me not to wish the new agency well in its work once it is up and running. I certainly do so. But I believe that unless the right safeguards are put in place the agency will start off with a number of serious handicaps. The first of these relates to its remit and accountability.

We are told that the agency will put consumers first. As a guiding objective that is fine, but we all know that in setting standards a balance always needs to be struck between the interests of consumers and those of the industry; between regulation and the cost of regulation; between enforcement and common sense. Where will responsibility lie for striking that balance? If it is to lie with the agency, what assurance do we have that the agency's judgment will not be unreasonably skewed towards the consumer? Yet if in the most significant areas of policy on food safety responsibility is to lie, as it has done hitherto, with Ministers, how will that situation differ from current practice? If Ministers are still to be responsible for such decision-making, what are we to make of the agency's policy of openness in being free to publish the advice that it gives to government? We are all aware that there is nothing so damaging to the food industry as a food scare, and the worst type of food scare is one which is unfounded both in science and in fact.

Openness is to he encouraged, but there is a danger in allowing an unfettered freedom to publish advice to Ministers on matters which are, in the sense I have indicated, of high public sensitivity and which bear closely on policy-making. It may well inhibit commercial organisations from disclosing information that is classified as commercial and in confidence. Can the Minister clarify that point?

Can she also clarify a related area of uncertainty; namely, the way in which the agency is to be made accountable to Parliament? If it is really to be an independent agency in much of what it does from day to day, to whom is it ultimately answerable and in what way, particularly if, as the Statement makes explicit, it has the power to overrule the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if it so chooses?

The Statement makes an interesting comment at page 2 where it says that the agency will ensure, that people have the information they need to make proper choices for themselves about the food they eat". I wonder what is the significance of that passage. Can the Minister say how that principle would have applied to the decision as to whether to ban beef on the bone? Who would have taken that decision? If the decision had been left to the agency it appears that an outright ban would not have occurred, but rather that consumers would have been given the information to make the necessary choices for themselves. Can the Minister comment on that?

I also believe that the agency is likely to be handicapped by public expectation. There will be a gap between what it is able to achieve and what the public expect of it. We know that approximately 44 per cent. of outbreaks of food poisoning originate from meals bought in restaurants, hotels and similar catering establishments. What control will the agency exercise over environmental health officers who are at present employed by local authorities, or will the agency's enforcement role run parallel to that of the EHOs?

By contrast, domestic catering accounts for some 17 per cent. of food poisoning outbreaks. The messages which inform consumers how to prevent food poisoning in the home cannot be repeated too often, but ultimately these are matters to which consumers themselves must attend. Despite the best efforts of MAFF and the Department of Health in running campaigns to educate the public, the incidence of food poisoning arising from inadequate storage, handling and cooking remains persistently high. Is the agency to take over that educational function from central departments? In other words, will its advisory role be an active one rather than simply reactive? In particular, will it take over the task of disseminating food hygiene education in schools?

We are told that the agency will be charged with the responsibility of giving the public information on the nutrient content of food. The Department of Health will give advice on diet and health. The Government may say that that will not in any way impinge on an individual's freedom to choose what food to eat, but the risk is that such advice may be taken in isolation; for example, advice on individual foods as opposed to on diet in the round. Nutrition is not an exact science. There is a body of scientific knowledge on nutrition, but it is not by any means comprehensive. I am worried about any proposal which extends the "nanny state". My impression is that that aspect of the White Paper does not command the support of the food industry or the retailers. I wonder whether the Minister could confirm that impression.

Finally, there is the important question of cost. There must be a doubt, in the light of what seems to me to be an inherent difficulty in separating the agency's responsibilities from those of Ministers, about whether the benefits of establishing the FSA really will outweigh the costs of doing so. What are the annual costs likely to be? Can the Minister confirm the Government's determination to maximise value for money by ensuring that the costs of administering the agency are low in relation to its overall budget? Are we to understand that, on enforcement, the agency will have the power to channel additional resources to environmental health officers? More generally, how much of the bill for the agency will industry, and hence consumers, be expected to pay? If licensing and fees are to be the order of the day, what is to stop this becoming an open-ended system of funding whatever the agency chooses to spend money on from year to year? I do not see how the system can be seen as anything other than a tax on food by the back-door. That being so, how will Parliament have control of the level of such a tax?

No doubt there is much discussion ahead of us on these important issues and I welcome the Government's decision to lay them open to wide consultation. I look forward to the Minister's reply and to our further debates on the White Paper in the months ahead.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Statement repeating that made by her colleague in another place. Those concerned with food and its effect on health 50 or 100 years ago would have been concerned about food availability. It is a measure of how things have changed for the better in our part of the world that we can now be concerned about food safety.

It seems to my colleagues and I that there are three important elements to this matter: the questions of standards, of confidence and of responsibility. First, on the question of standards, there is a balance to be struck. There sometimes seems to be a sense in the community that standards in such matters can be absolute and that there can be complete protection from all possible vagaries. But that is not the case. One could suggest that one could protect oneself from all the vagaries of life by refusing to go outside the front-door of one's home, but the adverse consequences on one's social and intellectual development would be considerable, to say the least. We must accept that, particularly when one is a little venturesome in the matter of food, various problems may arise.

Nevertheless, standards must be maintained and developed, and as things change, the existing standards may have to be made more stringent. Therefore, we welcome the notion that there should be an agency to address the question of standards. We also welcome the fact that it is to be removed from the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food because there is a sense of anxiety that there might be some temptation on the part of those who have responsibility for agriculture as an industry and for the food industry more generally to ignore some safety matters when they come to the fore.

I say that that is how people sometimes see things, but that does not necessarily mean that that is the case. In my part of the world, for example, the stringent requirements on which the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland has insisted have ensured that once the European Union accepts that a certified herd scheme will ensure that the exporting of British beef can begin again—we hope that that will be soon—it will be the farmers of Northern Ireland who will benefit most quickly. That will be exactly because our Department of Agriculture has always been so stringent with regard to the tracing of herds. That is why the public assumption that the agriculture industry and the food industry in general will be soft on the question of standards is often unfair, but people do see it in that way.

That leads me to the question of confidence, which has been so much lacking recently. That lack of confidence is not simply because there is sometimes a suspicion that people are too reticent to speak about the dangers; it arises sometimes because we are too quick to speak of the dangers. I believe that in the recent past Ministers have sometimes been so fearful of it being said that they kept things secret that they have immediately jumped to publish the latest speculation on a possible theoretical scare before there has been any demonstrable evidence. That has led to all manner of difficulties—not only to difficulties for the industry. but also to difficulties for consumers who do not know exactly how they should respond.

The idea of having independent commissioners is very welcome, as is the fact that they will not simply be moved from one ministerial department (such as agriculture) to another (such as health) because there is to be a degree of independence. That means that we shall not move simply from one pillar to another post, and it should create a degree of independence of thought.

Thirdly, there is the question of responsibility. People sometimes come to believe that the Government should solve every problem in their lives. They can come to believe that whenever a problem arises, it is because the Government or someone in responsibility has failed to do something. With regard to the incidence of food poisoning to which the noble Earl referred, the truth is that the responsibility sometimes rests with others (whether the standards agencies or those producing the food for the public), but I believe that that problem sometimes arises because people are not attentive enough to the way in which they prepare and keep food. That is why I welcome the notion that a relatively independent agency might be able not only to respond to the concerns of the agriculture and food industries, but that it may also be able to meet the health requirements. However, I hope that the Minister will agree that education has an important part to play and that the new degree of independence might help us to build relationships with that ministry.

Finally, I commend the Government on recognising that there are, and are likely to continue to be, differences in the different component parts of the United Kingdom. That has been properly recognised both in terms of the membership of the board of commissioners and in the advisory committees that are to be set up.

I strongly suggest that the Government consider whether the new body should he regarded simply as a "food standards agency" as opposed to a "food safety agency". It is not a question only of standards in terms of what the Government require and what the public agencies and the industry will observe; it is also a matter of all of us in the community being aware of food safety. We do not do the public a service if we suggest to them that the food produced for them is so safe that they do not need to pay any attention to the way in which they handle it after purchase. In that sense to say. "Ours is a 100 per cent. standard". sometimes removes from people the belief that they need to be careful how they deal with it and ensure that their food is safe not just when they get it but when they eat it.

In general terms, however, we on these Benches very much welcome and are supportive of the propositions that have come forward. We look forward to further consultation before we come to legislation.

5 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am very grateful to both the noble Lord and the noble Earl who have spoken for their broad welcome for the White Paper and its aims. I particularly welcome the points made by both speakers about the need to establish general public confidence in any arrangements flowing from the next stage of the consultation, the whole problem of openness and the points about which we had a lengthy discussion at Question Time—I do not believe that either of the speakers was present at that time—concerning the balance of risks and the need for what is colloquially called risk literacy on the part of the general public so that everyone is able to make responsible choices on the basis of balanced and good information rather than simply always relying on what they may he told or potentially instructed, which is certainly not the intention of these proposals.

I should like to address the specific points made by the noble Earl, particularly the question of accountability. If I elaborate slightly on the suggested arrangements in the White Paper I hope that that will reassure the noble Earl. Formally, the chair of the commission, who will be an independent appointee—it is clear from the White Paper that members of the commission will not be representative of any part of the food industry or any consumer group but will be appointed as individuals—will be accountable to health Ministers who in turn will be accountable to Parliament for the agency as a whole. We hope that the chairman or chairwoman of the commission will have a high public profile and take a large public role in doing precisely the kind of education and confidence building to which both speakers have referred. He or she will be responsible for answering to the public for the agency's actions, but clearly parliamentary responsibility will be through the health Minister. The agency's chief executive will be the accounting officer rather like the chief executive of the National Health Service and therefore will be accountable to Parliament for its expenditure.

The public response to the report of Professor James showed strong support for an agency that reported to democratically elected Ministers. The Government agree that it should not sit outside the boundaries of government but should have some arm's length relationship to it. I hope that noble Lords will be assured that by the nature of the appointments to the commission the agency will have a high degree of operational autonomy in its day-to-day responsibilities. I believe that that will provide a powerful guarantee of the agency's independence so that it will not become susceptible to a particularly strong lobby from one particular group of consumers or part of the industry.

The noble Earl was concerned about whether the structures as they develop would have resulted in the same decision about the ban on beef on the bone. I do not wish to repeat precisely what I said to the House at Question Time this afternoon. However, the information and advice which was given through SEAC and the Chief Medical Officer to health Ministers would follow a similar route to that followed before Christmas, but with the agency being involved. I believe that it would be somewhat theoretical to try retrospectively to forecast what the agency position might have been. Nonetheless, the arguments about relative risk and safety, or even the small degree of potential danger to the consumer which we believe results from beef on the bone, together with the other political arguments that I have advanced would have led to roughly the same decision being made, even though it might have been reached by a slightly different route.

The noble Earl asked about the role of environmental health officers under the new arrangements. They will continue to be the front line troops of enforcement, but we believe that the agency will have a very important role in enabling their work to be co-ordinated and perhaps systematised throughout the whole country. As to communications, we see the agency having an active role. There will be a communications unit within the agency with responsibility for the types of public education to which both speakers have referred. They quite rightly saw that as a major responsibility for the new agency.

The noble Earl was concerned that perhaps some of the openness about this information might be of concern particularly to retailers and other members of the food industry who might see some of that information as prejudicial to their commercial position. Although they may already be on the tapes which I have not seen, we do not yet have the precise responses of individual members of the industry to the White Paper. However. it is worth reflecting that most of the major retailers and many of those involved in industry were very enthusiastic in their response to the James Report on which so much of the White Paper is based. I hope and expect that we will see very much the same response today.

The costs are an issue. The Government believe that that is a matter on which there should be more precise consultation both during the consultation on the White Paper and in the period between the draft Bill and legislation. As I said when repeating the Statement, there will be a need for the closest possible consultation with all of the stakeholders involved.

Perhaps I may preview possible questions from noble Lords. It has been suggested in some of the media discussion prior to this White Paper that there may be an unfair burden placed on the industry if it is asked to contribute to some of the costs of regulation. It is worth looking at some of the other regulatory bodies such as Ofwat, Oftel or Ofgas. They have contributions from the industries involved to the regulatory process. Whether or not that is best established under the licensing scheme, which is one of the ideas suggested in the White Paper, is a matter that the Government hope will be very closely considered during the consultation period.

The noble Earl suggested that this might become a tax on food because costs would almost certainly be passed on. One should think of some of the reductions in cost over the past few years. As an example, one thinks of British Telecom where presumably the regulatory costs have not proved to be an intolerable burden. On a more modest scale, if one considers the costs of the licensing scheme under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, one understands that the income from fees for licensing covers 70 per cent. of the costs of that authority. I do not believe that this is a novel idea or one designed particularly to prejudice the food industry.

All of these matters are legitimate ones for further consultation. They are certainly ones on which the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture hope to work very closely with colleagues in the other departments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for drawing attention to the proposed arrangements in the White Paper for the diversity of interests reflected in those countries. Some of this may need to be looked at again after any possible devolution legislation is passed. For the moment, I hope that both he and other noble Lords feel that the different responsibilities are adequately taken care of.

As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to both the noble Lord and the noble Earl for their general welcome for the White Paper. We believe that it represents a major step forward both in the maintenance of food safety and the greater growth in food standards throughout the country. We very much welcome the general response that has been given to it so far.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that any steps that improve food safety standards are to be very much welcomed? Does she also agree that in the past there have been far too many sensational and often unfounded stories about the dangers, and sometimes the advantages, of certain types of food? Does she accept that so often this happens because food safety is a fertile subject for certain individuals who appear to be more interested in self-publicity than the dangers of unnecessarily frightening the public? With regard to the agency and the commission, does the Minister accept that it is vital that there are people on the commission and involved with the agency who are skilled communicators and are in a position quickly—the imperative word is "quickly"—to refute some of the sillier stories about food which appear far too often'?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making those points, which are well taken. I agree with him that a far higher standard of information and safety is needed. One of the primary responsibilities, as I hope I made clear in my response to the noble Earl, is the communication strategy which the new agency will develop. There is clearly a need for responsible information to be spread widely. I hope that in the appointment of independent commissioners those skills will be some of the ones looked for. They will be there in the professionals who will staff the new communications unit which will form an important part of the work. It is also true to say that what comes out clearly from some of the evidence which has been produced recently from the Consumers' Association's survey, for example, is that at the moment the vast majority of people feel that there is inadequate sensible information upon which they can make their personal judgments and take their personal risks. That will be an important role.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I join in congratulating the Minister and her department on moving towards what I would regard is an authoritative body which may, if used rightly, do much to reduce the opportunities for creating scares and mass hysteria. We all accept that there will be a price to be paid. I share the noble Earl's view that the costs should be spread widely and not imposed solely on the producers. Is the Minister aware that there will be a warm welcome for what I shall call the ancillary bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? I hope that they will enable the Minister of Agriculture to continue to do all that he can to advance the claims of Northern Ireland, not on territorial or political grounds, but on the uniquely high standard of animal health and traceability of animals in Northern Ireland, which is not matched anywhere else in Europe.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am aware of the points made by the noble Lord. We have seen today some public indications from Brussels that there is a recognition of the high standards of hygiene in Northern Ireland, which will be addressed in the detailed regulations which are to be drawn up under the agency's provisions. As I said in repeating the Statement, we are aware that there is a diversity of interests in relation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that the needs of consumers and the industry within the different countries are different. That will be recognised in the organisation.

Lord Rea

My Lords, as chairman of the Parliamentary Food and Health Forum, and as a member of the National Heart Forum, I greatly welcome my noble friend's words when repeating the Statement made in another place. A body such as the FSA is something that many of us involved in public health have been suggesting and for which we have been pleading for many years. I realise that food safety. in terms of protection from the various forms of food poisoning, is high on the public agenda.

Will my noble friend reassure me that the agency will not shy away from the issue of the poor nutritional rather than the microbiological quality of the nation's diet, which is also seriously at fault? We eat too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt and too few vegetables and fruit. Careful recent research can now demonstrate that about one-third of the deaths from heart disease and cancer in the UK and many other countries is diet related. Those two diseases are the top two causes of death. Attention to the quality of our nutrition could save many more lives than could the elimination of food poisoning, which claimed only 74 lives last year, although it caused a great deal of nuisance as well. That compares with the 275,000 deaths caused by heart disease and cancer. I hope that my noble friend can assure me that the Government will stand firm against those powerful sections of the food industry which have already tried to persuade them to emasculate, if not eliminate, the important advisory role of the FSA on nutrition and nutritional standards, in addition to its food safety role from plough to plate.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, first I pay tribute to my noble friend's long and distinguished record in promoting these issues within the Palace of Westminster and outside in his role as a public health doctor. Many of the matters to which he referred are primarily still for my honourable friend and colleague the Minister for Public Health, not specifically for the FSA. The agency's job is clearly to provide authoritative information about healthy food so that consumers can make informed choices about their own consumption. It will not be charged—I must repeat this, because the noble Earl referred to the spectre of the "nanny state"—with telling people what they should eat, although it will, I hope, be able to give clear and authoritative information about what a healthy diet is.

It should be made clear that the broader responsibilities—for example, those for coronary heart disease and cancer, to which my noble friend referred—will remain the responsibility of the Department of Health. We recognise clearly the responsibility of diet within those major health problems. My noble friend will agree that nutrition is not the sole cause of cancer or coronary heart disease. So, although we need to pay great attention to nutrition when considering how to deal with them, we could not possibly say that nutrition was the sole factor contributing to those diseases.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I join in the general welcome for the new agency. The Minister said that the Meat Hygiene Service would be taken over by it. Since that service took over from the local authorities, costs have rocketed. Abattoirs and slaughterhouses are having great difficulties in surviving. Will she give some assurance that that problem will be looked at carefully by the agency and that some balance will be found between costs to the new agency and to the producers? Otherwise slaughterhouses will continue to close, jobs will he lost and inevitably the price to the consumer will rise.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that the agency will be responsible for licensing meat plants and will take over the responsibility for the Meat Hygiene Service. It will also take responsibility for dairy hygiene enforcement work which is at the moment carried out by the agriculture departments in England and Wales.

As to the point about rising costs, one of the reasons for that is that since the Meat Hygiene Service took over the supervision and organisation of that service much more stringent, detailed and specific regulation has been supplied systematically. Those around the House who have welcomed the introduction of an overarching agency to improve standards would hope to maintain those high standards which we hope are beginning to reduce, for example, the BSE element in the human food chain.

As to the overall question of the cost of the agency, in my response to the noble Earl I did, I hope, make it clear that that is something which is still open to consultation. We do not feel that there is theoretically any reason to suppose that the industry should not make a contribution, but what that contribution should be and how it should be arranged is something which is genuinely still open for discussion.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I have had a glance at the White Paper. I was pleased to see that the preparation of animal feed is to come under the new agency. There is little doubt, from the latest evidence that I have seen, that the change from batch preparation of bloodmeal and that sort of thing to a lower temperature and cheaper continuous operation has been responsible for the enormous expansion to 170,000 cases of BSE in our cattle in this country. So I welcome that.

Why is it that in this time of greatly improved hygiene people seem to be more susceptible to food poisoning? Some years ago I was in Mexico visiting farms with a Mexican government vet. After a long day, we came to a roadside stall. My mouth watered at what I saw, but he stopped me, saying, "It's all right for me; but it's all wrong for you". It appears that we should examine people's susceptibility to food poisoning.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments about the organisation of animal feedstuffs under the new arrangements. Extensive rules on the composition and labelling of animal foods already exist, many under EC legislation. The agency will have direct responsibility for developing and continuing that work. It will also have reserve powers to take action to protect the human food chain in relation to controls which are primarily related to animal health and husbandry. However, some of that will remain the responsibility of the agriculture department in the direct organisation.

The noble Lord asked about the human immune system and spoke of his experience in Mexico. Earlier this week the British Medical Association published extraordinary figures, suggesting 1 million cases of food poisoning. I speak largely anecdotally and from personal experience rather than with enormous general authority. I think food poisoning is attributable to a number of causes. Often, there is concern about the temperature level at which people keep their domestic refrigerators. There is also concern about the public's lack of ability to understand information about proper preparation. For example, I and I am sure other Members of your Lordships' House often use fast food. One must read the label carefully to know exactly how long it needs to be defrosted and cooked in order to ensure that it is safe. Incorrect use can often lead to food poisoning, even in the most organised household.

Furthermore, there is some truth in the noble Lord's example about Mexico, which I know from experience. I am sure that Mexico would not care to he called a third-world country; but in countries where domestic refrigerators and fast food are less widespread people appear to have greater immunity to some of the problems we confront, even if we go on holiday and drink the water in the hotel bathroom in a well organised city which has normal standards of hygiene. I am in no position, certainly not as an immunologist, to discuss why the human immune system appears to becomes less resistant as we become more civilised, but there must be an element of truth in that.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement. I welcome the discussion that health Ministers will he accountable to Parliament for the agency, thus providing a visible sign of its independence from food producing and retailing interests. Will the agency operate in the public domain? Will its decisions and its reasons for them be made public, together with the issues raised in this House as regards health safety interests?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, my noble friend is right in saying that it was a deliberate decision to make the agency accountable to Parliament through health Ministers. That will illustrate in the most public way possible its independence from some of the interests which might be more directly related to MAFF.

As regards openness, I cannot tell my noble friend because it has not been decided whether, for example, the commission will hold its meetings in public. However, its evidence and advice to Ministers will be publicly available. We must then strike a balance between information which enables and helps individuals and consumers to take responsible decisions about their own diets and behaviour and issues which might create an inappropriate food scare, such as that suggested by a noble Lord opposite. The idea that the role of the agency is to raise the level of information and public understanding about food standards is central to its function.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, the Statement refers to a coherent set of proposals. That will prove to be correct or overwise depending on how effective are the Department of Health and MAFF in working together. However, will the Minister accept that it is important that other departments are seen to work with them, too; for example, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? We in our wisdom made it illegal to dump raw sewage into the sea and now more comes back to the land and into the food chain. That is a consequence of lack of thought for the food chain. Does the Minister agree that all departments take an interest in the affairs of the agency?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, yes. The noble Lord will find that when the Department of Health's Green Paper on the country's future public health policy is published in a few weeks precisely that integration of the different interests will be made clear. The necessity for the level of co-operation and collaboration which he describes will be set out exclusively. It is not only at Whitehall level but also at local level that we need to see cross-agency collaboration and co-operation if we are to have a general understanding of the potential risks and the action which different parts of government, both nationally and locally, can take.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, as patron of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain—an honorary position—perhaps I may say that the association welcomes the establishment of a food standards agency. Anything which can bring back confidence in food will be welcome by restaurateurs in this country. They have suffered more than most from the number of scares during the past few years.

The Minister will be aware that the restaurant trade and the whole of the catering industry comprises a vast number of small businesses and employs an enormous number of people. Therefore, the imposition of regulations and costs could be damaging to an industry which creates a great deal of employment. I hope that that will be recognised in the procedures.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his general welcome from the position from which he speaks. As the Statement made clear, the interests and concerns of small businesses will be explicitly addressed during the next period of consultation. We are concerned to ensure that those interests are heard.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I rise to underline the support of LACOS, of which I am the first president, for today's announcement. Perhaps I may encourage the Minister to ensure adequate consultation with the local authority associations on the issues set out in the White Paper. I wish to underline and reinforce the importance of ensuring that we use our position to encourage and foster co-operation and, more particularly, consistency of enforcement in the local authority sector.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving his authoritative support to the proposals, in particular for emphasising the role which local authorities will continue to play. Local authorities will remain the front line troops in much of the organisation. We hope that working with the new agency will provide consistent and coherent standards across the whole country. The local authorities will be involved in all consultations, which will take place in the next few months.