HL Deb 22 July 1998 vol 592 cc871-4

2.50 p.m.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to the replies of the Baroness Jay of Paddington on 26th February (HL Deb, cols. 789–792), what progress is being made to broaden the membership of their scientific advisory committees.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, last year the Chief Scientific Adviser issued guidelines on the use of scientific advice in policy making. These advocate that departments should obtain the best possible scientific advice from all the sources available. As a demonstration of our commitment to these guidelines, we have re-established the Council for Science and Technology with three additional independent members. The guidelines also specifically recommend that membership of expert advisory committees should be kept under review to ensure that an appropriate range of scientific opinion is represented.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his encouraging reply, so far as it goes, while perhaps expressing some surprise at seeing him at the Dispatch Box today despite my best efforts to reword my Question, as prompted by his Whips' Office last week. Can he say how we can learn the names and provenance of any new members who might come on to these committees, which hitherto have been so dominated by pharmaceutical and food company interests? Can he also say what has become of the offer which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, made to me, and through me to others, several months ago to participate in the process of finding new people for the committees?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, with regard to the noble Earl's second question, I am sure that my noble friend Lady Jay is most grateful for any suggestions that he may have sent in. I cannot comment on whether the names will be chosen, because appointments to many advisory public bodies are now the responsibility of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The names could well be in his department.

Members of the Government's scientific and advisory committees are appointed on the basis of their individual expertise and not as representatives of any one company or organisation. Departments have examined the balance of interests on some of the committees and have taken a number of actions. For example, a public interest representative has recently been appointed to the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, and representatives from the health food industry, complementary medicine, consumers and the food industry have been appointed as observers to the expert group on vitamins and minerals.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, with regard to the relevant scientific advisory committee and Vitamin B6, is the Minister aware that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not even finished looking at all the detail of the information which had to be submitted to it by 26th June? Does not the decision to restrict the amount of Vitamin B6 that can be sold and taken, about which we have been reading in the papers, mean that the whole consultative exercise is a sham and makes a complete mockery of the entire advisory committee system?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the Government have a duty to act where they believe they see a danger. Following the public consultation exercise, proposed regulations on Vitamin B6 are currently being considered and an announcement will be made in due course. In addition, the expert group on vitamins and minerals jointly convened by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health has been asked to advise on a framework for the safety of all vitamins and minerals. That will take about 18 months to complete and a report will then be published.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, in the interests of transparency, can the noble Lord say exactly how the members of these committees are selected and how the names on the shortlist that is presented to Ministers are chosen? Are they chosen by a civil servant?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the Government announced recently that ministerial appointments to advisory non-departmental public bodies will in future fall within the remit of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir Len Peach. The commissioner publishes guidance on and audits the public appointments process. The Cabinet Office publication Public Bodies 1997 gives details of the executive bodies and the advisory bodies which will in future be covered by this arrangement. Regarding the question of the shortlist, a shortlist is put before Ministers after a fair and open recruitment process, as required by the commissioner. This will involve consultation with other interested parties where appropriate. The shortlist will have been subject to independent scrutiny, either within or outside the Government, by at least one individual. These procedures are intended to open up the whole process, as the noble Countess would like, in order that candidates can make their names known to the department themselves.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is it not the case that, if people who are appointed to these bodies also have a close professional interest in the subject concerned, the bodies may wish to act as self-regulatory bodies? Would it not be better to appoint to these bodies an increasing number of people who do not have a pecuniary or professional interest in the subject?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the guidelines clearly indicate what the procedure should be. We need to involve the most highly regarded experts in their fields. Those individuals will of course be attractive to commercial organisations and some will inevitably have associations with industry. There are well-established procedures under which members with commercial interests declare them and, if necessary, abstain from discussions. Members' financial or other links with the industry are also regularly published.

Earl Russell

My Lords, in his first reply, the Minister used the words "the best possible scientific advice". Does he agree that advice in which its givers have a commercial interest, by definition, cannot be the best possible scientific advice?

Lord Haskel

No, my Lords. As I said, members of the scientific advisory bodies are appointed on the basis of individual expertise and not on the basis of the organisations, groups or companies which they represent.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, does the Minister accept the stricture of the Select Committee on Agriculture in another place which said that the Committee on Toxicity treated witnesses on the subject of Vitamin B6 with contumely and contempt? Will the noble Lord ensure that the new committee treats its witnesses with distinction and honour?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I am sure that the new committee will treat its witnesses with distinction and honour.

Lord Peston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if, every time any leading scientist or engineer is appointed to an advisory committee, scurrilous remarks are made about his or her integrity, in the end only second-rate people will be willing to serve, which would not serve the country at all well?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point.