§ 3.32 p.m.
§ Report received.
§ Clause 1 [The Food Standards Agency]:
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 1, line 10, leave out ("main").
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, during the Committee stage I suggested that, as the provision is worded, it could be taken to imply that the agency may have or may acquire minor objectives which are not on the face of the Bill. I felt that that was not the Government's intention. In her reply the Minister stated:
I suspect that … we are not particularly at variance in terms of purpose".—[Official Report, 12/10/99; col. CWH 9.]
§ She then went on to explain why the Government felt that my suggested amendment was unnecessary as drafted. This new version of my amendment is intended simply to clarify that the agency's purpose is twofold; namely, public health protection and wider consumer protection matters. I beg to move.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for once again raising this point. I am obviously something of a "parliamentolic" because when I went home yesterday evening I watched the parliamentary channel on television. I caught two items. One concerned the House of Commons—the other place—and the other concerned the Committee for Privileges, whose deliberations I found fascinating. I came to realise the importance of the first clause of a Bill. It was explained in great detail by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn.
In the Grand Committee and at subsequent meetings we discussed the purpose of Clause 1. As it is currently set out, it expresses very adequately and correctly what we all want the Bill to do. The removal of the word "main", which is what the amendment proposes, would quite severely restrict what the food standards agency could do, and all of the matters on which I was asking for clarification in Grand Committee—nutrition, openness and other issues that will arise later in our deliberations—would be 387 automatically excluded. For that reason it is not possible for us to support the amendment. I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that raising these points at a later stage of the Bill, as we have sought to do, is a more appropriate approach.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, I am surprised to find my two amendments, Amendments Nos. 2 and 21, grouped with Amendment No. 1 because they seem to be entirely in a contrary sense. If anything, they seek to widen the scope of the Bill rather than to narrow it. They refer to points which I raised in Committee.
At present, Clause 1(2) specifies the main objectives of the agency in carrying out its functions as,to protect public heath from risks … and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers".Everything turns on what the word "interests" means. Does it or does in lot include wishes and preferences; or does it mean what the agency thinks would be good for the consumer? As the Bill is drafted, there is a real risk that the agency will interpret its duties in the latter sense; that is, to do good for the consumer—the nanny state—rather than being also concerned about the interests and wishes of the consumer. If that happens, we shall have to say goodbye to consumer preference and we shall say goodbye to variety, flavour, local traditional products and so forth. Already, the European Union has taken us far down that route. I do not believe that that is what the public want. Where risks are small and gastronomic benefits, to some at least, are great, I do not believe that consumers should be forbidden from purchasing foods. They should be informed of the risks and be allowed to behave like adults and make a choice. That is what we do about alcohol and smoking. That is what is right and that is what the public want. Amendments Nos. 2 and 21 would make it clear that the agency must have regard to consumer preferences and use proportionality in defining and policing what consumers are allowed to buy.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Northbourne and in doing so support the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in his unwillingness to support the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. There are all kinds of different expectations about foods. We live in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country. I think immediately of the Jamaicans who like their meat nearly rotten. An environmental health officer who saw that meat could immediately condemn it. Is it right that we should forbid them to eat the kind of product that they have been used to eating all their lives and which they enjoy because someone thinks that there might be a few bugs in it, especially when the meat is going to be cooked? There are other aspects with regard to fruit and vegetables. For example, we have often had discussions in your Lordships' House about the size of apples. Children like little apples and one cannot buy little apples in supermarkets. I strongly support the two amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, with regard to removing the word "main", a Bill as far-reaching as this one 388 should have on its face a clear objective. If it has more than one clear objective, those objectives should also be listed as the objectives of the Bill and the agency which it seeks to set up.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, after the objective set out in Clause 1(2) which is described as the "main" objective, what other objectives are set out in the Bill? If there are no other objectives, surely the word "main" is otiose.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I, too, am slightly surprised at this grouping. The first amendment is of enormous importance. The word "main" is very damaging. There is no definition later in the Bill of other duties that might be performed by the various committees and authorised persons. Those duties might be anything.
This is a fairly powerful measure. Again people are allowed to enter premises, question, take away samples and so forth. It would be nice, indeed proper, to know that this provision relates merely to food safety and nothing else, instead of leaving the whole situation hanging. The reference is to the "main objective". The suggestion is that there are other, hidden objectives—a hidden agenda. We are dealing with a perfectly sensible food standards Bill. Let us merely indicate that objective, and not hint at other objectives that might arise later.
§ Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes
My Lords, I am not so concerned with the word "main". However, I hope that the Minister, in replying, might elucidate "protect", which I believe to be the key word. There is a great deal of difference between protecting consumers by warning them, and protecting them by prevention. It is an entirely different matter. I hope that the Minister will make that point clear.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, this short but interesting debate has illustrated the importance of the clause. We debated its structure and meaning at some length in Grand Committee. The debate has also illustrated that once we begin to deconstruct individual words we recognise why parliamentary counsel choose them very carefully. It is possible for them to mean different things to different people, and their meaning in normal parlance may be different from their meaning in statute. The debate and the amendments tabled suggest that further clarification is needed in regard to Clause 1(2). I hope it will be helpful to the House if I recap on the intended effect of that provision.
The "main objective" as set out in Clause 1(2) provides the agency with a clear and unequivocal main objective consisting of two related goals: first, and most importantly, of protecting public health in relation to food; secondly, of protecting the wider food-related interests of consumers. We shall discuss the importance of labelling later in our discussions. I know that it is a particular concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford.
389 However, I must emphasise that the word "main" applies to the objective as a whole and not merely to the public health protection part of the clause. The provision therefore encapsulates the agency's central purpose without implying that any aspect of it is optional.
That is particularly important because food safety and nutrition, which are broadly covered by public health protection—the issue referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes—cannot easily be separated from the wider consumer interests dealt with in the second part of the objective. When we discussed nutrition at an earlier stage the point was made how important it was not only to take a microbiological view of safety but to be able to look to the long-term health implications of nutrition and the advice that the agency might make available. However, the fact that public health protection comes first makes clear that it takes priority over the latter part of the objective. That point was made during the course of the debate.
Some noble Lords have suggested that the word "main" is otiose. The word is used also to reflect the fact that the agency will have other objectives that supplement the primary objective. Some of those are already provided for in the Bill. For example, the objectives of consultation, liaison and openness are referred to in Clause 22(2) dealing with the agency's statement of objectives and practices; and the supplementary objectives on animal feed matters are contained in Clause 9. The main objective is spelt out in Clause 1. But as we discussed at some length in Grand Committee, the agency should also have the objective, for example, of being a transparent and accountable public body. It is not the main objective—the main purpose for which it is set up is the protection of public health—but it would be wrong to deny that the agency should have an objective of behaving in a proper manner and—I shall shortly refer to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—also a proportionate manner. Those are objectives, but they are not necessarily set out in Clause 1(2).
Clause 22 also provides for the agency to introduce further objectives of its own. Those could, for example, be used to elaborate on the areas of activity that the main objective provided for in Clause 1 will cover, or to describe more fully how the agency intends to carry out its functions. Amendments have been tabled which encourage exactly that kind of approach in order to expatiate on some of the issues raised in Committee.
The main objective in Clause 1 does not, therefore, exclude subsidiary objectives. However, perhaps I may reassure the House that it does not mean that the agency will be able to redefine its fundamental purpose by drawing up new objectives. The whole point of making it a main objective is to set down the essential scope of the agency's activities. Limiting it in the way that the amendment purports to do would be unduly rigid. It would also lead to inconsistency with the provisions of Clause 22.
390 I reiterate what I said in Committee. I believe that the objectives of all sides of the House are very close, and that the main objective is clearly and specifically defined. There are real difficulties in attempting to draw it too tightly. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will consider withdrawing the amendment.
I now turn to Amendments Nos. 2 and 21, the first of which relates to the agency's main objective. I agree that the agency's actions should not have an unfair or disproportionate impact on specialist minority or niche food producers. I should also like to record how significant a part of our strength and diversity as a food producing nation such products are. Many of them represent a distinct part of our food heritage, the value of which I believe our trading partners overseas, as well as consumers in this country, are beginning to recognise. I hope that some of the marketing aids that were recently announced will provide help to the industry. It is therefore most important that the agency should not behave in a way that is liable to cause unreasonable damage to consumers' interests in enjoying the healthy diversity of food products and food qualities.
I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that it is going too far to suggest that the agency should take a proactive role in protecting consumers' preferences in relation to matters of taste, texture or character, as the first of these amendments seems to imply. These are ultimately matters of both personal choice and personal definition. They are for the market rather than the regulatory authority to determine. We have all seen how consumer preferences are changeable. It would be difficult for the agency to protect them in a coherent way. We all have experience of food that is appetising but not nutritious and, equally, food that is nutritious but not appetising. There are difficulties in trying to put those kinds of definitions into the statute.
However, I understand the concerns that have been expressed. Noble Lords may be reassured to learn that the agency will be required under Clause 22 to consult consumers and their representatives on its activities. By virtue of Clause 23 the agency is bound to take account of any costs or risks relating to taste, diversity and so on that consumers identify. I am sure that those who represent the interests of minority groups of consumers will make their views known. The agency will also be required to consult, where relevant, representatives of those who produce specialist or minority products. The same duty to take accounts of risks, costs and benefits will ensure that the agency's actions and decisions do not have an unreasonable or disproportionate impact on their interests. We do not believe that the agency would retain public support if it took an over-the-top or heavy-handed regulatory approach, and we would not expect it to do so.
As a further safeguard, the agency will be required to operate within the framework of better regulation and adhere to its basic objectives. We have given a commitment that the agency's statement of objectives and practices will embrace the principle of better regulation, and that is where the concept of 391 proportionality is so important. The agency will be held accountable, and its actions may be open to judicial review in cases where it acts unreasonably.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is reassured as to the rigour of the constraints under which the agency will operate both under the Bill and in the broader context of government. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness is prepared to withdraw her amendment.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may seek clarification. I do not understand the position. Is the noble Baroness saying—as I hope—that the principle of proportionality will be written into a statement of objectives or government guidelines, or is that just the pious hope of the Government?
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, the agency will be required to operate within the framework of better regulation. That framework clearly states the need to assess costs and benefit and to act proportionately. We have given a commitment that that is a general responsibility on public bodies. But we have given the further commitment that the agency's statement of objectives and practices will embrace exactly the principle of better regulation so that the way in which the agency operates is made explicit. That is a precise response to the question of proportionality and the need to avoid heavy-handedness, as discussed in Grand Committee.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. I am also grateful to other noble Lords who supported the amendment. I am still somewhat perplexed by her response and the fact that it appears that "main" is not necessary in its present context in the Bill. At this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No 2 not moved.]
Baroness Byfordmoved Amendment No. 3:
Page 1, line 14, at end insert ("through the institution throughout the United Kingdom of a labelling regime").
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 3 I speak also to Amendment No. 9 which is linked with it. These amendments deal with the question of labelling which we debated at great length in Grand Committee. Amendment No. 3 seeks to insert the words,
through the institution throughout the United Kingdom of a labelling regime".
§ I doubt that any in this Chamber and those beyond have missed the hectic events of the past few days. There have been many pronouncements by senior functionaries involved in farming and food processing and by MAFF, the Department of Health, the Foreign Office, and so on. Action has been taken by supermarkets and education authorities and there have been many protests by enraged farmers. Today, pig farmers have protested outside. We have seen the 392 effects of BSE, dioxin and sewage sludge. Too many have suffered from E.coli, salmonella and listeria and still the Bill contains no reference to labelling.
§ This Bill has probably more public support than any other single measure introduced by the Government; it carries an enormous amount of popular expectation. The public want labelling, as the Consumers' Association has confirmed. The public want to know the origin of the food they buy and will not understand legislation that does not specifically charge the food standards agency with the duty to introduce a comprehensive, compulsory labelling scheme. Mark the important word "compulsory". There are those of us who fear that if the agency is not charged on the face of the Bill with the duty to deal with labelling, it will be all the easier for businesses, and entire nations, to avoid it.
§ As to Amendment No. 9, for many years we have recognised that certain religions do not allow their adherents to eat certain items. Similarly, it is standard practice for specimen menus to contain a sentence at the bottom to the effect that a vegetarian menu is available on request. In Grand Committee many references were made to the fact that some people have allergies. We now see the growth of consumerism to regulate the methods used to kill animals and prepare food. The outcry against genetically modified crops or the use of antibiotics as marker genes may be media inspired; it is nevertheless lasting fairly well. The revulsion against veal crates led to a famous ban. The rules that regulate our abattoirs are not grounded solely in the BSE crisis. The British rejected the killing of animals that had not been properly stunned and the slitting of the throats of millions of conscious birds. They also stopped, perhaps temporarily, the irradiation of food produce.
§ With this increasing fastidiousness come doubts and questions about how sure we can be that the food we eat is not genetically modified, contaminated with pesticides or antibiotics, covered in bacteria or produced from animals that have been treated inhumanely. Earlier this year I asked the noble Lord. Lord Donoughue, whether he would confirm or deny a report that Portuguese abattoirs were flouting the EU slaughtering regulations. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, answered my query, for which I was grateful. She confirmed that the rules were not being properly adhered to.
§ The interesting, and apparently unanswerable, question is: what happened to the meat which was produced under sub-standard conditions? Did any of us eat it? Did it go to our food processors and end up in steak and kidney pies, beef chop suey, pork pies or chicken tikka? Can we be sure that tonnes of this meat cannot still be found in European meat stores or reposing in home deep freezers all over the Continent? These may sound flippant questions, but they are crucially important.
One of the reasons why there are no answers to some of these questions is that the labelling of our food products to show the country of origin is not standard throughout Europe. Moreover, it is frequently
intimated that it is illegal to demand that imported goods indicate the country of origin. I quote from an Answer given by Mr Rooker to Mr Gray in March 1999:
Rules on the labelling of food products are harmonised by EC legislation. Generally, the place (but not necessarily the country) of origin of any food must be given if omitting it could mislead the purchaser about the true place of origin of that food. The place of origin may be taken as the place in which the food last underwent a substantial change".
He went on to say:
More specifically, the Beef Labelling Scheme requires that any beef labelled with country of origin information must derive from animals born, reared and slaughtered in that country. National origin labelling of beef is expected to become compulsory from the year 2000".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/3/99; WA 189.]
Since my preparation for my response, many events have happened over the weekend. In this Chamber last Friday we welcomed the report from the European Union on organic farming and the European Union. Perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to a section on imports on page 10. It states:
Documentary evidence demonstrating that the imported products were manufactured according to production and inspection rules equivalent to those applicable in the EU must be provided along with the application. All organic products, whether imported or produced with the EU, must be traceable back to the farm of origin".
§ The report earlier lays down stringent rules.
On 22nd October, the MAFF release stated that new GM labelling measures will be agreed in Europe. In his speech yesterday to the NFU, Nick Brown spoke of products and labelling, and said:
I am particularly concerned at the development of products with labels with British sounding names that are being used to market imported pig meat".
Indeed, I have raised the issue several times in this House, as have my honourable friends in another place. He continued:
I am determined to tackle the issue of misleading labels, and I am today issuing new, strengthened guidance to Trading Standards Officers to act upon cases of misleading British brand names on geographic association … given to imported produce. I have three objectives: To give clear information on real place of origin—not the place of processing or place of slicing".
All noble Lords in this Chamber would welcome that. Too often produce which has not been produced and finished in this country has a British stamp on it. Recently when someone opened a piece of pork which was understood to be a British product the word "Danish" had not even been removed from the side. It is a disgrace. Nick Brown continued to list his objectives:
To clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions. And to make further progress on lobbying the European Commission and other member states for a system of clear origin labelling. I am seeking to have this raised in Codex committee on fool labelling"—
the Minister responded to that issue earlier at Question Time—
and I will be raising the issue with our friends and allies in the United States when I next meet for bilateral discussions".
§ I could go on. There are many examples of that big problem that we face.394
§ An important new agency is being established. As I said in Grand Committee, I find it extremely worrying that there is no direct reference in the Bill to labelling. In many instances, it refers to "information", but as I said in Grand Committee, information and labelling are totally different. The Minister having had a chance to reflect upon what I said then, and my highlighting of the difficulties we face, I hope that the noble Baroness can respond with more encouraging news.
§ It seems that we can label our own produce—the agency could draw up guidelines to ensure that we do so—and retailers have to abide by that. For some produce even Europe is prepared to insist on national labelling. I believe that the Bill should lay upon the agency a duty to introduce origin labelling of all food products sold in this country and at the same time demand ancillary information of great interest and importance to our consumers. I beg to move.
§ 4 p.m.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment. However, I can foresee a number of enormous difficulties in particular on Amendment No. 9; not least of those is the difficulty of providing on small products a label which is large enough for the consumer to read. In Grand Committee I was somewhat laughed at for talking about being a "small cheese producer"—making small cheeses. I explained then that there would be that difficulty.
I foresee other problems; for example, how do we deal with retailers of loose fruit and vegetables? Is every single piece of fruit or vegetable to have a label with its nutritional value, country of origin and all the other information which the noble Baroness seeks?
Perhaps I may suggest that the noble Baroness does not ask for the amendment to be dealt with at this stage, but takes it away and puts in a number of exemptions. For example, a producer or packer who is selling direct to the consumer could be exempted because he is there to talk to the consumer about his product.
There is a problem when referring to ingredients. At present, in some cases if an ingredient comprises less than, I think, 2 per cent of the final product it does not have to appear on the label. There may well be such exemptions. I should very much like to support the noble Baroness on this amendment, but I cannot do so.
§ Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes
My Lords, I support what my noble friend said with great lucidity, like a breath of fresh air after the emanations from the Government side during these difficult weeks. However, I am almost in despair at getting across my message about labelling.
The noble Baroness is right. Of course it is necessary for consumers to have all the information in order to inform themselves, but key to that is the way in which the information is presented. My noble friend spoke of comprehensive regulations. That is fine. But they must also be uniform. If they are not uniform, one will not be able to compare goods. I said that at length in Grand Committee; I shall not do so again.
395 Under the present proposal, one could have a label with a huge list of ingredients in tiny print, printed in grey on white. Noble Lords may think that that suggestion is far fetched. I assure them that that occurs even among the most laudable of our retailers and manufacturers. They often do their best, but in the absence of regulations it is difficult for them.
My noble friend's remarks on Amendment No. 9 do not refer to health claims that are made. That is referred to clearly in the American legislation. I gave the Minister a copy of it. Having retrieved her spectacles, I hope that she has had an opportunity to consider it. Health claims are made: "Healthy choice this; healthy choice that". Only today I ground to a halt at the confectionery department of Selfridges when I heard a lady demonstrating some chocolate for a manufacturer which she represented. She said, "This chocolate contains 70 per cent chocolate so it is much better for you than any other chocolate because it has less sugar". Had it been a French company, I would have intervened on the spot. However, it was a Swiss company and under the circumstances I thought that perhaps it was not the right moment to do so. But that is an example of misinformation.
When the Minister responds, I hope that she will give us some hope about presentation and uniformity of labelling regulations. and on the issue of health claims.
§ Lord Clement-Jones
My Lords, we on these Benches have considerable sympathy for the objectives set out in the amendments, particularly in the light of the events of the past few weeks and the heart-felt speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. We debated these issues at considerable length in Committee. Like the noble Countess, Lady Mar, we do not believe that the amendment will do the job required of it. It appears to limit the effect of Clause 1 rather than extend its ambit and that gives us considerable cause for doubt.
We also believe that the amendment is overprescriptive in its intention. The regime it imposes would create great difficulties for a number of food producers. However, we welcome the speech made yesterday by the Minister of Agriculture. We do not believe in an overhasty reaction to such matters. We believe that improved food labelling is necessary, but it must be considered and be the subject of consultation.
In Committee, the Minister assured us that labelling is clearly part of the objectives of the agency. We on these Benches accept that. However, it would be of great value to hear from the Minister precisely what steps will take forward what the Minister of Agriculture said yesterday. We believe that his move was constructive, but how will it be applied? What statutory powers will the Secretary of State and the agency have to improve labelling? Will he be given only guidance, or will he be given something with more teeth in order to ensure that consumers are genuinely reassured that our food is safe?
My Lords, I, too, support my noble friend Lady Byford in her amendment. Not only 396 should we be showing the end purchasers exactly what they are buying but we should indicate the stages that meat, in particular, goes through from manufacturing, the slaughterhouse and processing. Consumers should have the ability to trace such foods.
I am still not confident that when I send a bullock to market with all its ear tags I will get the same bullock back from the slaughterhouse. The labelling is such that when I buy back the carcass of an animal I have sold at market, even before much has been done to it, I cannot be confident that the animal is mine because the ears are no longer on it. I am not confident about the ability to trace products through the system. We must press hard for a better labelling system or we shall not get far down this road. Perhaps the Minister can explain the steps which will be taken next.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I support the amendment for the reasons expressed so admirably by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. If one wants to avoid excessive governmental nannying and bossiness in this area one should ensure thorough and comprehensive labelling and then allow adults to make up their minds about what to eat and what to avoid.
My noble friend Lady Mar added some valuable and pertinent caveats. If the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, wants the amendment accepted today, perhaps she will undertake to introduce further amendments at Third Reading incorporating the suggestions made by my noble friend.
§ Baroness O'Cathain
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Byford. I fear that we shall fall into the trap of saying that labelling is all too difficult and that therefore we shall not attempt it. The proposal is prescriptive and the problem is difficult, but that is no excuse for postponing taking action. I also support what was said by my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes about the difficulty in labelling, for example, a small portion of cheese showing the country of origin, how it was made and its ingredients. Labelling is also difficult if the print is small and black against a colour and is squashed together so that it cannot be read adequately. All that causes problems, but surely it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to solve them.
I find most disconcerting a practice which began, I believe, in the United States of America: product labelling which includes a detailed list of the ingredients. On a bottle of shampoo, for instance, the first item listed is aqua. Bearing in mind that not many of us have a classical education today, nobody knows what the hell aqua is. It is a huge minefield.
I do not subscribe to the view that people are being deliberately misled by manufacturers agreeing in principle to labelling but making it impossible for consumers to find out what is in the product. However, I plead with the Minister to do something. We have in front of us a Bill called the Food Standards Bill and it is most important that all of us should be able to judge what we buy and what we eat. Without nannying, we should then be allowed to make our own judgment. I support my noble friend's amendment in principle.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Rea
My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Baroness has moved the amendment. I do not expect my noble friend to include it in the Bill, but it gives her another chance to explain the Government's position on the nutritional labelling of foods. I hope that that includes nutritional and health claims, too. Perhaps my noble friend will also explain how we should progress with EU harmonisation because it is difficult for us to move alone.
As has been said, it is through labelling that consumers will be able to exercise their choice of foods, particularly those which are packaged or processed. In order for consumers to be able to do that properly, all foods, except perhaps some fresh foods which are of standard composition, should be labelled or categorised clearly and effectively.
I also hope that my noble friend will be able to say that the food standards agency will conduct research into labelling and its effectiveness in helping people to make healthy choices. At the same time, it should examine how effective advertising is in persuading people, particularly children, to make the wrong choices and to consume diets which harm their teeth and general health and make them too fat.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. I believe that some labels will be too large. It will be difficult to judge what to put on, say, a tin containing a complicated mix of food and what it is reasonable to leave off. I am worried about showing on the label whether or not the food is genetically modified. Soya is imported into this country in large bulk from North and South America and it soon finds its way into tins on the supermarket shelves. My informants tell me that in North and South America there is little soya that is not genetically modified. It is called RR soya—round-up resistance soya—and it gets into almost everything. I wonder what we can do in a situation like that.
§ Lord Rotherwick
My Lords, I, too, want to support my noble friend Lady Byford. This morning I heard on the news the chairman of the EU food committee saying many alarming things about the fact that France, for instance, admits that it has worse problems with BSE than it previously thought. He went on to say that he thought something should be done about that. He also said as regards the foods now in the marketplace that the most important thing for consumers was to be able to make an intelligent choice and to buy food that was safe so far as they could possibly be informed. How can they do that if there is no information on that foodstuff in the form of labelling?
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I am also generally in support of the amendment, but I have a query on Amendment No. 9 on the labelling of the system of production. Perhaps the Minister, when she replies, or my noble friend in winding up could answer my questions. Would such labelling show whether meat came from animals which had been routinely fed with low doses of antibiotics to make certain that they did 398 not fall ill? Such antibiotics can make humans resistant to antibiotics. Would it also show that fruit or vegetables had been sprayed—I understand sometimes as many as 12 or 13 times—with different herbicides or insecticides?
Although I have no medical qualifications whatever, I understand that the number of people suffering from different kinds of allergy is increasing in this country and probably in the West as a whole. I wonder whether all the chemical sprays used on foods might not be one of the causes of those allergies.
§ Lord Rathcavan
My Lords, I should like to speak briefly in support of Amendment No. 3 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. In particular, as a member of Sub-Committee D of the Select Committee on the European Communities, I have become increasingly aware, during our deliberations on our last two reports on genetically modified organisms and on organic farming, of the huge importance of labelling.
The Bill is remiss in that it does not draw attention to the labelling issue at the front of the Bill. I am relieved to note that the European Union recently introduced a directive giving a threshold for labelling of genetically modified content. I am fully aware that this is a minefield. Does a cow that eats genetically modified maize silage produce antibiotic resistance? There are all sorts of complex dimensions in terms of processing and trace elements. Overall, it is a tremendously important issue. It is important to pay particular note to the labelling issue at the outset.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I should like to echo those last words: this is a tremendously important issue. That has been clear from contributions throughout the House. I also make it clear that it is a tremendously important and wide-ranging issue on which the food standards agency will have lead responsibility. Perhaps I may suggest that in the debate we have had, we have gone a little way towards doing the job of the agency for it in telling it exactly how the job needs to be done. That is fine, and I agree that perhaps the wit of women should be applied to this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, quite rightly showed ways in which the agency could work in this area.
However, I must bring the House back to the amendments themselves, to see whether they are necessary in order for the agency to deliver what the whole House wants it to deliver. I refer to high quality, informative labelling on which consumers can then make their own choices. That is the issue with which these amendments confront us. I hope that I shall be able to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that those powers are clear within the framework in which we are setting up the agency.
In Grand Committee I said that the agency's responsibility for labelling is central to its role as well as being a matter of considerable concern to consumers. Clause 7 makes it clear that the agency has a role to provide consumers with the information they need. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, 399 who said that labelling information was not the same as labelling. Labelling is one aspect of it, but the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, made it clear to us, with the American document which she showed the House, that giving consumers the power and knowledge by which to interpret labelling is equally important.
The issue of health claims and of how things are presented is extremely important. The agency will have a wide range of information responsibilities, including labelling. I repeat the assurances that we have given throughout the debate that the way in which the Bill is drafted covers labelling. There is no doubt that the term,interests of consumers in relation to food",covers labelling. That expression appears both in the agency's main objective in Clause 1 and at various other places throughout the Bill.
The Bill makes it clear that the food standards agency will be the main source of advice to Ministers on the use of the powers in the Food Safety Act. The Bill is about setting up the structure of the agency. It is not intended to put in force the powers themselves, which are contained in the Food Safety Act 1990.
I realise that people want to see the word "labelling" appear in legislation. It does so in the Food Safety Act. It may perhaps provide a helpful reassurance if I remind noble Lords that Section 15 of the Food Safety Act deals with the offences relating to falsely describing or presenting food, which includes the use of misleading labelling. Perhaps most importantly here, the regulation-making power in Section 16 clearly provides the basis to regulate labelling, along with a number of related matters which we should not downplay.
Perhaps it might be helpful if I read the provisions into the record. Section 16 states:The Ministers may by regulations make…(e) provision for imposing requirements or prohibitions as to, or otherwise regulating, the labelling, marking, presenting or advertising of food, and the descriptions which may be applied to food".I do not believe that there is any doubt that the existing framework of legislation provides the necessary powers.
Amendment No. 3 would require the agency to institute a labelling regime throughout the United Kingdom. That is a rather curiously narrow role in relation to labelling, since the agency's remit goes much wider and covers advice and information to the public. I also remind the noble Baroness that we already have a labelling regime provided for by the EU labelling directive and in our own legislation. This is a matter of Community confidence, and we have to work within the labelling regime that already applies in Community law.
Noble Lords have raised the issue of genetically modified ingredients in food. I can perhaps reassure the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, that if GM ingredients, as either soya or maize—the two European-approved GM products—are contained within foods sold in this country, that food has to be labelled and marked as 400 such. Within the European Community we recently extended that provision to additives and flavourings, which was an important area.
In the interests of making consumers better aware, we also recently brought in regulations to ensure that the labelling requirements for GM foods extend to people buying food in restaurants and supermarkets. In order that restaurants could deliver on that, last week in Europe steps were taken to ensure that bulk supplies for restaurants would also be labelled appropriately so that those running restaurants and take-aways could assure themselves about the information they were giving to customers. That is one aspect of the issue of traceability which was raised.
§ 4.30 p.m.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Is she telling us that the Food Safety Act 1990 protects us from our concerns about food not being properly labelled? How does the situation come about which we were discussing earlier whereby chicken which had been pre-packed in one country was stamped as being British? Will the noble Baroness explain how we can feel safe about this aspect of labelling?
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I am not saying that people feel safe. We are dealing with the issue of how the regime for which this amendment provides is applied. We are concerned about country-of-origin labelling and the fact that it may be misleading to consumers. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, quoted at some length from the announcement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture about consultation with local trading standards officers. The consultation was designed to ensure that the officers take effective action—which they can do under the Food Safety Act—against misleading labelling, and to ensure that we do not let the guidance notes do anything other than impress upon all concerned that origin indications on food should be clear and not misleading. Some of those points emerge when we see what people do: the way in which flags have been misused or say "produced in Britain" or whatever. We wish to tighten up on those practices which we believe are misleading.
I also believe that it is important that we have improvements in the labelling rules at a European and international level as well as at a domestic level. Therefore, while we have taken that action in terms of tightening up within the Food Safety Act, we are also taking action within Europe to see whether we may extend more satisfactorily the issue of nationality labelling. This is not only a European issue; it is a matter of international trade. Codex Alimentarius has a committee on labelling which must ensure that the agency, with its clear remit of protecting the interests of consumers in relation to food, will take the lead in pressing for improved labelling.
Earl Baldwin of Bewdley
My Lords, could I just ask the noble Baroness a question relating to something that she said about GM food a moment ago? I read 401 that there is to be a tolerance of about 1 per cent or something with GM food for labelling. Is that so or not?
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, the tolerance level recommended last week was up to 1 per cent for an individual ingredient. Because of the small amount of individual ingredients in terms of a finished product, the up to 1 per cent will be less than that in finished products. That is why the supermarkets are saying that if a ready-made meal contains some cornflour which might have come from genetically modified maize, the levels would in fact be much smaller. That 1 per cent was supported by countries within Europe on the basis that it was reliably detectable in an ingredient throughout Europe and that it should be reduced if possible when there were assured supplies of non-GM sourced material which come with separation. That is being consumer driven throughout the European Community, North America, South America and elsewhere.
§ Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, she will be aware that there was supposed to have been a review of food labelling in this country at the beginning of 1998. That did not take place. In the context of what she proposes for the future, will she say why it did not take place and subsequently what will take place?
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I have told the noble Baroness of some of the work which we are doing, particularly on country-of-origin labelling, which is so topical at the moment. I have also spoken about the work that we are doing within Europe and within the international community. We are also looking—this partly relates to the issue of traceability raised by the noble Viscount—at the issue of marketing. Consumers and, indeed, producers want to be able to trace back the food that they buy so that they can tell exactly where and how it was produced.
Modern technology and distribution systems make better traceability a real possibility. Despite the problems referred to by the noble Viscount, the introduction of cattle traceability has been a major step forward. Increasingly, producers are developing quality assurance schemes which give greater information on where food comes from and how it has been produced. The Government have strongly supported those moves and the agency will continue to do so. There is great scope for providing better information for consumers by putting quality assurance markers on the label. Again, it is very important that the agency makes clear what those quality assurance markers mean.
Perhaps I may reassure noble Lords who have expressed concern that the Food Safety Act is not the only way in which it will be made explicit that labelling is a responsibility of the agency. The agency will be able to set out its general objectives in relation to labelling in its statement of objectives and practices, which will be prepared under the provisions 402 of Clause 22. We also expect the agency to set up a good system for keeping the public informed about what it is doing and what its objectives are, so that that is all absolutely transparent. We must not forget that the agency will operate openly and that Clause 19 will enable it to publish its advice, including advice to Ministers.
Perhaps I may also reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who asked a particular question about Portuguese abattoirs. Following the adverse report on the hygiene conditions in Portuguese abattoirs, I understand that the Commission took a decision to prohibit the export of meat from Portugal in order to ensure that consumer health was protected. Similarly, it acted when an analogous problem arose with Belgian products containing dioxins and it was recognised that there was a risk to health. Therefore, action was taken in that particular area.
I have been at pains to reassure noble Lords that there is no lack of a legislative basis, now or in the future, for the Government to take appropriate action on labelling. The food standards agency will have responsibility as the prime adviser to government in this area. However, some of this will not be undertaken by a regime set up by the food standards agency. For example, the issue of extending—which we wish to do—the marking of GM ingredients in animal feed will be something we have to pursue at a European level. I believe that at the moment we are all aware of the need for clear labelling on animal feed, as well as clear enforcement of the laws on animal feed.
The agency will take steps to improve the labelling regime which operates within the EU context and the way in which the agency's advisory role on labelling will be made completely transparent to the public. I emphasise once again that I do not believe that the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness will be helpful. However, I understand that she believes that consumers would in some way be reassured if, from reading the Bill, they could see that the agency was responsible for labelling. I believe we may have a divergence of opinion as to whether many people will gain that kind of reassurance from reading the Bill. I believe that "by their actions shall they be judged", and that it is by taking a proactive, consumer-protecting approach that the agency will really show what it is doing.
I cannot accept these amendments in their present form because of the difficulties that I have outlined in terms of competence for various levels of labelling in various institutions. If the noble Baroness wants me to consider whether there is some way in which I can meet some of her concerns, even at this late stage in the passage of the Bill, and if she is willing to withdraw this amendment now, I would certainly—
§ Baroness O'Cathain
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Before she sits down perhaps I can remind all noble Lords that this Bill was drafted at a time when there were concerns about food and about all the problems we have encountered since the BSE, E.coli and salmonella scares. The reality is that this subject has now gathered momentum. The last 403 thing we want to do is to make legislation on the hoof in response to what people may call a bit of hype and hysteria—I could say "hysteria about listeria"! I ask the Minister to think about this matter. When reading the 1990 Bill I thought that it was fine, but it is now 1999. Not only have we to consider the current situation, but also the build-up of circumstances since 1990.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I appreciate the way in which the noble Baroness has phrased her views. I believe that she recognises from her experience the difficulty of specifying one element, on which the public have focused at a particular time, out of a range of activities rather than dealing with the whole range of activities. When the agency is set up in April, the public may focus on different issues. We all know the difficulty of lists in legislation.
Once again, I can reassure the House that the legislative basis is already in place to take the sort of action that the House wants the agency to take on labelling. Of course, in view of the pleas that have been made and without undermining the principle of not going into every aspect of the work that the agency has to cover, I shall see whether we can accommodate the concerns expressed today.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. We have spoken about the matter several times, and we had a long debate in Grand Committee. Now that we are in the main Chamber, the Minister will appreciate the immense feeling and desire that we should have labelling on the face of the Bill. I have to disagree with the Minister because I have looked through the Bill and I cannot find the word "labelling" anywhere. Perhaps I can take a little time to cover certain issues that have been raised today because I believe that this is one of the most important issues on this Bill.
I accept that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, cannot support my amendment as it stands, although she understands whence the amendment comes. I understand that for some commodities that are very small these amendments—particularly Amendment No. 9—ask for too many details. The one thing on which noble Lords will agree is that we want some form of kite mark on all our goods—I think that is possible, if nothing else—that each and every person in this country would recognise as meaning that the product had been produced, grown, finished and processed in this country. I know that my amendment does not specify that to the finest degree, but I believe that we can all agree that it would be welcomed readily outside this Chamber.
As I tried to highlight earlier, the great difficulty is that people see the word "British", or they see "quality assured" and they do not know what quality is being assured. We need something that is recognised across a whole range of products and not just on one product, such as the lion on eggs. It is important that the lion is on eggs as it helps egg producers. In addition, we could have a little mark on products that says that they are British. A quality mark for pork has been launched, as 404 I am sure the Minister knows only too well, and it is a recognised label. However, for the general public the profusion of labels is extremely confusing.
My noble friend Lady O'Cathain remarked upon the fact that matters have moved on since the 1990 Act. Those who sat in on the debate in Grand Committee will have heard a great argument and discussion when I tried to have the definition of "food" put into the Bill. However, that was not welcomed. I come back to the same issue that I raised then. This is a brand new agency. It is now 1999, not 1990. It will be 2000 when the agency is established. We do not want people to say, "I am sorry, but that is in the Bill that started in 1990 and we shall have to look at X or Y to understand it." Certain matters are of prime importance and labelling is one. It should be on the face of the Bill. I thank noble Lords who have spoken and who have brought forward important matters that I hope the Minister and the Government will take on board.
I turn to one or two issues raised by the Minister. In Grand Committee, together with colleagues on the Liberal Benches, we linked labelling with nutrition. As can be seen from these two amendments, I have separated those issues because I realise that there is a big difference between labelling for nutrition information and what I call more general labelling, at which the two amendments are aimed. I hoped that that would help debate.
The Food Safety Act goes back to 1990. I would like to see "labelling" defined in the Bill. I have heard what the Minister has to say and I am encouraged— although not satisfied at this stage. Let us not be in any doubt that the Bill has draconian powers. What is not written in the Bill sometimes worries me more than what is written in the Bill. The whole issue of labelling certainly should be there.
I return to the issue of country of origin. Of all the matters in the amendment, it simply cannot be left to wait to see what happens. I know there is great hype at the moment. I am encouraged by the fact that within Europe the subject is being looked at. Perhaps I can give your Lordships some extra figures that I hope will highlight the issue.
This year our chicken imports are up by some 23 per cent on last year. The biggest supplier is Holland which has shown the biggest increase. Imports of chicken from Thailand have also increased. Of the countries from which we have imports, 85 per cent are within the EU. Whatever labelling we decide on must be applicable not just for our own country but across the EU. I know the Minister has difficulty with that.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I have no difficulty with that at all. However, it undermines the amendment suggested by the noble Baroness concerning a UK regime. From what the noble Baroness has read out, let alone from what I said, there is no question of the Government waiting to see what happens. Yesterday we took action on misleading 405 labelling in relation to country of origin. I have also mentioned the other action we are taking within the context of the EU and the world.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. I did hear her. I am just concerned that it is not happening now. We are consulting. If I were making a political point I would say that this Government are well known for consulting and not always for coming up with the goods.
I move on to the point I touched on briefly earlier. Within the UK the public find many different and varied quality assurance schemes. I had hoped that through these amendments we could tease out of the Government a greater commitment. If they do not like my amendments perhaps they will give us a commitment between now and Third Reading that they will come back with something that is constructive. I have listened with great care and due respect to the Minister, who I know is trying extremely hard—
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Unless I completely misheard the Minister, I thought she said, in a very gracious part of her intervention, precisely that she would take away the proposal of the noble Baroness and consider it again. Frankly, that was one of the most conciliatory remarks I have heard on Report from a Minister. Perhaps I may make a small political point. If the party of the noble Baroness had been as conciliatory when in government, we would have accepted a great deal. I urge her not to press the amendment and to accept the offer.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am not sure whether I thank the noble Viscount for his intervention. I accept his remarks, although I do not necessarily agree with them. I have, indeed, listened. The Minister and I have discussed the whole issue of labelling. I am grateful for her response. However, that does not detract from the fact that there is great feeling around the House about the need for some form of labelling.
I accept the Minister's sincerity. I have never doubted it. I hope she realises that; I am sure she does. However, there is great concern. Providing she confirms the assurances she has given that she will go away and consider this matter again, I accept that. At this stage, with those great reservations and on the understanding that I wish to return to the matter at a later stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 4:
Page 1, line 14, at end insert ("through the establishment throughout the United Kingdom of nutrition standards").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 4 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 10. These two amendments deal with establishing nutrition standards throughout the United Kingdom. 406 Amendment No. 10 looks at the whole situation, especially the issuing of advice on all aspects of nutrition.
Various government spokesmen at various stages of the Bill have assured us that the agency will have nutrition as one of its major responsibilities. However, the Government have steadfastly insisted that there shall be no overt reference on the face of the Bill to that duty. I confess to being totally perplexed by that stance. I have heard it said, and recently, that unbalanced diets, too much fat, too much sugar and not enough greens are probably responsible for more premature deaths than any other single cause. I do not know whether it is true but I can quote from various reports. The Health Education Authority issued a report this year called Improving diet and health through European Union Food Policies. The opening paragraph states that,
there is widespread international scientific agreement on the constituents of a healthy diet. However, neither the CAP nor any of the other policies of the European Union that affect the quantity, price and quality of food are designed to produce a healthy diet".
Among its recommendations are:
Health protection should not preclude health promotion—the former is enshrined in the Amsterdam Treaty, the latter is not".
Scientific committees, like the one in France that thinks our beef is unsafe, should stop concentrating solely on food safety and start to promote health".
The report continues:
There should be surveillance of food and nutrition intake, particularly among the old, children and low income families.
§ The list is quite lengthy. It left me in no doubt that nutritional issues are of major importance.
§ Is it not peculiar that a new agency, with a duty to protect public health and the food interests of consumers is not specifically charged with the establishment of nutritional standards? On 12th October in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, stated that the agency is expected to work closely with health-promoting bodies. Surely, research published by the Health Education Authority should be taken into account in establishing the agency's ground rules.
Amendment No. 10 inserts in Clause 7, at the end of line 29 on page 3,
especially the issuing of advice on all aspects of nutrition".
§ I have spoken at some length about the desirability of placing nutrition standards on the face of the Bill as part of the agency's statutory responsibility. In our view, that responsibility should also appear as part of the exposition of the functions of the agency. The provision of advice and information should include, from day one, on an ongoing basis, the results of the latest and most up-to-date research into nutrition.
§ Moreover, the agency should be at the forefront of research—organising, sponsoring and doing some of it. In the debate in another place Jeff Rooker stated that the agency will inherit a research function with a budget of about £25 million. Thirty per cent or so is to be spent on food and nutrition. That £8 million or more is a lot of money. It is more than has been spent 407 this year on supporting farmers starting to convert to organic production methods, although we were pleased to hear earlier today of the extra money now coming their way. We wish to ensure that there is no way the agency can legitimately direct all that money to food research whether in response to pressure from sectional interests or in reaction to more and bigger food scares.
§ The question of nutrients is important. One example will suffice. This is taken, again, from the Health Education Authority report I have already mentioned. An iodine deficiency in the soil in an area of China was treated by putting iodine into the irrigation water. In the following three years, iodine levels in crops, vegetables and meat increased five fold. The benefit came in the form of fewer infant deaths and still births.
§ I, for one, am glad that the people of this island no longer exist on a diet of potatoes and turnip greens with occasional ham or scrawny chicken. However, I am increasingly aware that the importance of food choice has resulted in the most powerful food industry. That power, combined with a pervasive advertising industry, ensures that we are all bombarded with enticing information whose value is sometimes doubtful. For example, "95 per cent fat free" means "5 per cent fat". There is good fat and bad fat. Examination of contents labels indicates that the lower the total fat content of processed food, the higher the absolute content of bad fat. Has anyone the responsibility to alert the public to such a situation? Has anyone explored its effect on the growth of children, on heart patients or the very old? These are a few examples. There are many more. I beg to move.
§ Lord Clement-Jones
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 23. We had a full debate in Grand Committee. I do not propose to repeat some of the arguments in favour of including nutrition on the face of the Bill. We had a considerable discussion on that subject. We wanted to ensure that nutrition was included on the face of the Bill because of our concern that the detail of the White Paper would be lost. To its credit, that document goes into considerable detail about the extent of the nutrition duties of the agency. Your Lordships will remember that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, read out paragraph 5.11 of the White Paper. I do not propose to do that. However, they are extensive and useful duties which we were concerned to see included.
The Minister made a useful statement in Grand Committee. She said:I can say within the confines of this Committee that the Government are fully committed to the agency having a major role in nutrition and in diet; in it being a key part of its remit for protecting public health".—[Official Report, 12/10/99; col. CWH 37.]She also said that the Government had no doubt that the agency's main objective in Clause 1 encompassed nutrition. I am sure she will repeat that today. We on these Benches took strong comfort from that statement. However, we feel that the place for nutrition and some of the greater detail about the 408 duties of the agency should be in the general statement of objectives of the agency provided for by Clause 22. In fact, the Minister gave an undertaking in Grand Committee, saying, at col. CWH 39:There may possibly be some opportunities for spelling that out [the nutrition duties] in other documentation that goes with the Bill".,and she asked for time to consider the matter.
It seemed to us a constructive way forward, hence our amendment on nutrition in Clause 22. That would give the opportunity to spell out the nutrition duties in some detail; not only the generality of nutrition, but also some detail in the general objectives provided for by Clause 22. It would place a duty on the agency to do that.
It may seem a narrow amendment, but the words, "related activities" are designed to bring in all the other points in the White Paper without those on these Benches being accused of producing a list. I know that Ministers and the draftsman have a horror of lists and I do not intend to produce one today. That is the reason for Amendment No. 23. We feel it to be a constructive way forward which gives the Government the opportunity to specify nutrition as part of the duties of the agency. We look forward to the Government's response.
I have one final question. Concerns have been expressed to us by the advertising industry about the nutrition duties of the agency and whether or not food advertising would be covered. I know there are some anxieties. There may be differing views as to whether or not that would be desirable, but guidance from the Minister as to whether or not she considers that to be within the duties of the agency would be extremely helpful.
§ 5 p.m.
Earl Baldwin of Bewdley
My Lords, I wish to say a few words in support of Amendments Nos. 4 and 10, having failed to get to the Public Bill Office in time to add my name to those of the sponsors.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, reminded us, the Minister gave assurances in Grand Committee that the new agency would have a major role over nutrition and diet. But, like the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, I find difficulty in getting my mind around the idea that a major Bill—the Food Standards Bill, incorporating the Food Standards Agency—will not have nutritional standards on its face. I am still concerned with the general principle, as opposed to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who wants the matters of detail later. I would be sorry if, as we were with labelling, we were referred back to the Food Safety Act 1990. That was a long time ago and means reading a different Act to get the full picture.
I see a danger—I hope I am wrong—which I have mentioned before. We may be tending to focus narrowly on food scares and food scandals; for example, E-coli, BSE and so forth. The whole business we are facing is not just in relation to salmonella and a batch of eggs; it is not just about the nutritional content of food which is the subject of Amendment 409 No. 23; nor is it quite the same as our old friend the "balanced diet". As I said in Grand Committee, referring to the 1991 WHO Report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases, it is government policies on farming and food supply and the relationship with industry in the whole of the western world which have produced a culture of eating which is filling our hospitals. It is for that broad background that we want to make sure the agency has a remit. It needs an independent agency at arm's length from government to tackle this and to look at the nutritional problem in its widest sense. I repeat a plea therefore to have that on the face of the Bill.
I turn briefly to Amendment No. 10. I like the phrase, "all aspects of nutrition", because that takes in the wider context about which I was talking a moment ago—not just the short-term issues, but the deeper issues of long-term food policy. As I said also in Grand Committee, do not let us be frightened of nutritional advice. There is something about it that scares people. We take advice over many other areas but somehow food touches us deeply and we do not like being told what to do. I have said before and I shall say again; if, as a taxpayer, I am helping to fund research into nutritional matters, I feel it is my right—and I would be angry if I did not get it—to receive the product of that research and to hear what is or is not good for me to eat. I have no obligation to take that advice, but I want to hear it. Again, the agency is the right body to deal with that advice.
As a postscript, coming in on the Tube this morning I read an interesting fact. We are recommended to have one or two portions a week of oily fish. But MAFF has just discovered, in a survey of PCBs and dioxins, that if we do that, we shall be over our safe limit; or if not "we", at least children and "at risk" groups. Yet no advice is forthcoming. That is the kind of area where we need an independent agency to direct the public and not just to say, as people tend to say, "There is absolutely no risk in this." There is obviously some risk. It may be slight. We need good, intelligently-put advice. I therefore support both amendments.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I approach this series of amendments in perhaps a naive way, having all my life followed the dictum, "A little of what you fancy does you good." Individuals are all different and nutrition for one—for instance, sugar—may be quite wrong for someone else. I feel that the individual should be allowed a little bit of common sense and not be nursed along too much.
The other main difficulty I see as a producer of food—oily fish in point of fact—is the whole problem of labelling and getting the message across. If we have the labels we have just been talking about, who will advise on the nutritional value? We have just heard that differences of opinion occur. I have a feeling, secretly in my heart of hearts, that this is something which should not be on the face of the Bill. By all 410 means leave it to the agency to think what it wants and take what advice it can, but I am not keen on it being on the face of the Bill.
§ Lord Rea
My Lords, again I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for proposing this group of amendments. Long ago I gave up any hope of persuading my noble friend to include the word "nutrition" on the face of the Bill, but she knows well that that is not for want of trying.
I have just received a list of "ideal" objectives for the food standards agency that was sent to me by the National Heart Forum—previously known as the National Co-ordinating Committee for the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease—membership of which I have declared on a number of occasions. The objectives with regard to nutrition were drawn up by dietary and nutritional experts forming the "Sustain" group of the National Food Alliance. Can my noble friend say whether the food standards agency will in fact, though unstated in the Bill, fit its activities to the following objectives? First, the agency should oversee the monitoring and surveillance of the nutrient content of food and the nutrient content of the diet. Secondly, it should provide authoritative, factual information about the nutrient content of foods and advice on diet as a whole. Thirdly, it should secure expert scientific advice on the relationship between diet, nutritional status and health, to support the definition of a healthy diet and to inform policy. Fourthly, it should provide the definition of a "balanced diet". And fifthly, it should provide practical guidance in relation to nutritional aspects of the food chain, including production and catering.
Of course, I do not expect my noble friend to accept those lock, stock and barrel today. But I should be grateful if she could say whether her concept of the food standards agency's role and objectives will encompass those principles. Of course, I shall pass the list to her for her further perusal.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, sadly, I do not think that I will have time to read that list of objectives. I shall just have to keep them in my memory and bear in mind what my noble friend said.
In some ways, we have had an almost parallel debate to the one that we had on labelling. I am pleased with the enthusiasm that is implicit in what has been said in the House today for the job that the agency will have to do. In a way, we are trying to make it into an effective agency; that is to say, one which delivers effective policies in areas that are of great concern to us, including labelling and nutrition. It is my responsibility today to bring the attention of the House back to the fact that what we are actually doing is legislating to establish a food standards agency. We have to scrutinise this legislation to see whether, as drafted, it will allow the agency to do the job that noble Lords have suggested they wish to see done.
The Government have no doubt that this Bill provides the necessary basis for the agency to take a key role in nutrition. That has always been our 411 intention, and it remains so. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, slid in last year's White Paper, we set out a proposed split of responsibilities between the agency and health departments. That division of responsibilities is still the basis on which we are working. It would be foolish to deny that the only government body concerned with nutrition should be the FSA. The Department of Health, in particular, and other agencies will have such responsibility.
We acknowledged at the time of publication of the White Paper that there were substantial areas where the agency and departments would have to work closely together. Given the links between diet and health, which has been mentioned today, it makes no sense at all to try to establish rigid and inflexible boundaries. Indeed, it is a prime example of where we need joined-up government if we are actually to deliver.
I hope that I can assure noble Lords that, as well as having a clear remit, the agency is being established with the expertise that it needs to take forward its responsibilities for nutrition. The nutrition unit of the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group will transfer to the agency. However, I have to tell the House that I do not believe it either necessary or, indeed, helpful to try to build in the explicit reference to "nutrition" that the noble Baroness proposes in her amendment.
The main aim and functions of the Bill encompass the nutrition remit. If we took a phrase like "nutritional standards", I suspect that we would end up going down the route of defining the agency's nutrition responsibilities in specific and even in restrictive terms. I know that this will not be welcomed by the House, but I have to point out that the Food Safety Act already provides an effective framework for taking any necessary regulatory or legislative action in the nutrition area that might be required.
In general, the Government do not believe that regulation is necessarily the right way forward to raise standards of nutrition in this country. We do not believe that it should be a matter of telling people what they should eat and drink. As many noble Lords have already pointed out, it is very difficult to tailor that information and advice on an individual basis. We have to ensure that people can receive the best advice, information and encouragement to make sensible choices for themselves, providing that the food which is delivered is safe and that there is a proper and appropriate regulatory system for ensuring that safety. It is difficult to see what benefit would be gained from requiring that the agency should establish nutrition standards throughout the United Kingdom.
The noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, raised the issue of the difficulty for consumers in understanding advice in relation to the findings on dioxins and PCBs in marine fish. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Earl that the results to which he referred were published in full at the end of July and sent out to media, consumer organisations and environmental groups by MAFF. They were considered by the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, which recommended that adults should 412 continue to follow the COMA advice that individuals could consume at least two portions of fish per week, of which one should be oily fish, as part of a balanced diet. I hope that the noble Earl will not feel that no advice was given in this respect, because such advice was provided.
If we took the amendment as drafted, I have to tell the House that it would restrict the agency's nutrition remit; indeed, the wording does not begin to capture many of the things that the agency will do in the nutrition area, especially as regards giving advice and information and working with the health promotion bodies. I believe that the latter was something that noble Lords in Committee certainly wanted the agency to do, and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Rea would also be of the same view.
I am aware that there are many people who ask, "If the Bill doesn't mention nutrition, how can we trust the Government, or some future government, not to change the agency's remit later?" I understand that concern, although I hope that I have given the House enough of an assurance to put the Government's intention beyond doubt. However, as my noble friend said, I said that I would take the matter away and look at ways in which we could perhaps make more explicit the responsibilities regarding nutrition. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked me if I could say a little more in that respect.
We believe that the foundations on which to build for the split of responsibilities between the agency and health departments to command consensus support are in the White Paper. We now intend to build on those foundations by setting out very clearly, in writing in the surrounding documentation, the agency's involvement in nutrition. The two main areas in which this will be done are through the agency's statement of objectives and practices and through the published concordats.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, pointed out, Clause 22 requires the agency to prepare a general statement of its objectives and practices, which must be approved by Ministers. I can today give the House a guarantee that Ministers will not approve the statement unless it describes the agency's general objectives in the nutrition area. That statement will, of course, be published and laid before Parliament. I believe that that usefully picks up the helpful suggestion made by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in his amendment, which indicates that such a statement is a good way of demonstrating exactly what the agency will do as regards nutrition.
The agency will also have a public service agreement, which will be published in the usual way. More detailed objectives and targets will also be published each year. This will provide an opportunity for the public to see exactly what the agency is doing in fulfilment of any objectives it agrees on its nutrition remit. Of course, the agency will report on its achievements in its annual report.
Mention was also made of the administrative concordats between the agency and departments. These will be published. As the agency will need to 413 work very closely with the Department of Health on nutrition matters, because of the clear interface with wider public health issues, the concordat will set out in the kind of detail spelled out in the White Paper how the split between the agency and the Department of Health will work on nutrition. Indeed, one useful way forward would probably be to have some wording based on the White Paper itself set out in an annex to the concordat. I hope that that will be welcomed.
One further point is that the Secretary of State for Health announced earlier this week a new specialist advisory committee, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which will take over from COMA. One of the reasons for establishing this new advisory committee is to take account of the new role of the agency on nutrition matters. The agency and the Department of Health will jointly provide the support and the secretariat for that committee. The new committee will provide a source of the best scientific advice to the agency and to health departments in developing their nutrition policies. I think that gives some idea of the infrastructure that will be needed to ensure that the agency can actually fulfil its responsibilities in relation to nutrition.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked me specifically about advertising and the role of the agency in that regard. I have already referred your Lordships to Section 16 of the Food Safety Act, which explicitly mentions advertising alongside labelling. The agency will be able to advise on the use of these powers in relation to advertising and to give guidance to ensure that advertising connected with food is not misleading. It will also maintain close contact with the other regulatory bodies, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority and the relevant broadcasting authorities. I hope this will be of some reassurance to noble Lords.
This Bill, which is essentially about setting up a new body and giving it general functions and objectives, is set up to operate within the existing framework of the law. It will be for the agency itself to shape the development of that law and, as I said before, to deliver on policy. I get a very strong sense from our debates today that people want to see the agency up and running and delivering in these areas. We want to see it delivering in the area of nutrition. Nutrition is a matter of the utmost importance to public health and is one of the central issues on which we all agree the public need and want good and helpful information.
I believe that the framework I have set out, the advisory committee that is being set up and the explicit references that will be made to the aims and objectives and practices in the general statement which will be laid before Parliament, together with the administrative concordat, should build up a very secure framework within which the agency can work effectively in the area of nutrition.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her full and helpful response. Assurances were given in the Grand Committee, but we do not see them on the face of the Bill. The noble Baroness again assured her 414 noble friend Lord Rea of the importance of nutrition, but it does not seem to be sufficiently important to find its way on to the face of the Bill. It made me a little worried about the position concerning my previous amendment on labelling, but I will leave that aside.
My first amendment was intended to establish a common standard throughout the United Kingdom, with particular reference to the new devolved parliaments. We certainly do not wish to see different standards set for different parts of the United Kingdom, and that is why I included it in my amendment. I would have thought that spoke for itself.
My second amendment referred specifically to the issuing of advice on all aspects of nutrition, and I would have thought that was something the Government would have welcomed. However, they clearly have reservations about that.
I am well aware that the Bill is concerned with setting up an agency, but that agency is to look after food, food safety and food standards. Perhaps that is why we are somewhat laboriously going over some of these very important issues. If you want to buy a car, it does not matter so much, but something you eat has a direct effect on lifestyles and everyday living. Although health is the lead agency; as I know only too well to my cost, having tried to get it put on the face of the Bill, the noble Baroness will remember that she said that "the Secretary of State" could not be defined as the Secretary of State for Health. In fact, however, that was the person concerned, and it made me smile to think that here we are, discussing again, but not solving, some of the problems that were raised earlier.
Like other noble Lords, I shall welcome the setting up of the new scientific advisory committee on nutrition. I am sure it will have an important role. I thank noble Lords who have spoken and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 2 [Appointment of members etc.]:
Lord Rotherwick moved Amendment No. 5:
Page 2, line 4, at end insert —
("( ) In making the appointment the appropriate authorities shall ensure that the balance of membership of the Agency shall reflect the populations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment No. 5. The agency is comprised of a chairman, a deputy chairman and between eight and 12 members. Two of the latter will be appointed from Scotland and one each from Wales and Northern Ireland. There are to be advisory committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not necessarily for England. The population of Wales is under 4 million; of Northern Ireland under 2 million; of Scotland under 6 million; and of England more than 47 million. On that basis England should have 15 members, as compared to the two for Scotland and the one each for the others. However, the maximum England can have is eight, assuming that the agency includes 12 members.415
§ We have heard during earlier stages of the Bill that the agency is to be overarching. We have also heard that there are marked differences in the incidence of food-borne diseases between the territories that make up the United Kingdom. There is here an implicit contradiction. The impartiality of the agency might be questioned in a situation where the need to act throughout the United Kingdom could be influenced by a strong sectoral interest. Such a position would be more likely were the balance of the agency to be weighted by having, say, three or four members from any one of the devolved territories. There are those who would comment that such is the position of the Government, which is composed of considerably more Scottish MPs than is justified by the ratio of all the MPs in Parliament. However, the Government are a much larger body than the food standards agency, and subject to rather more scrutiny and open working than the agency will be. It is important that the composition of the latter be representative of its responsibilities. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, my Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are linked with that of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. Amendment No. 6 calls for the establishment of an advisory committee for England. In the course of a 30 minute debate in the Grand Committee I felt there was a strong feeling that England needs an advisory committee. There is a question of imbalance if there is not one. There is a real possibility that in creating an agency in its own image the Government will appoint not only two Scottish parliamentary nominees but other Scots as well to the panel of eight to 10 members.
There is also the question of representation. England, as my noble friend has pointed out, is nearly twice the size of Scotland, with a higher proportion of land devoted to apiculture, and England has four times the population of the other three taken together. England is to the United Kingdom as France is to Europe, in terms of the passage of imports and exports across its territory. Four to eight ordinary members cannot hope to reflect the balance of interests across England.
True, the Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to direct that an advisory committee for England can be established, but says that he should do so after consultation with the agency. I have difficulty in imagining how he will actually take this step. Will he in practice take advice from his chairman? Will he decide that the agency's decisions are unbalanced, call them together, give them X weeks to improve and then act? Or will perhaps in-fighting or a failure to agree signal the need for greater balance? It sounds impossible, but sometimes impossibilities do happen. Why do we not just have done with it and create one for England from the start?
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, there are 11 lines in this Bill dealing with these advisory committees and I find it very peculiar indeed that we do not refer to England, except in subsection (2). It really seems to me to be a classic case of "too many words", a phrase that we 416 have often heard used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I would have thought that it would have been very much easier just to say that there shall be an advisory committee for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, and remove the reference to the three advisory committees on page two, and then cut out the whole of Clause 5(2), as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Byford. I should be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, these amendments all say roughly the same thing. It seems sensible that England should be represented in the way that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Luke, suggest. Of the amendments proposed I prefer that combination. However, I am intrigued by the criteria that are used. On a Bill such as this I would not select people on the basis of where they come from. I would select them purely on the basis of their knowledge of food. If all the candidates live in Land's End, so be it. However, having said that, I support strongly the combination proposed by the noble Baroness.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, this is an interesting little debate that goes back to our old friend, devolution. I shall not remind your Lordships that at this time a year ago we trolled through the Scotland Act. This matter conveys a tremendous sense of déjà vu.
I believe that there is a fundamental misunderstanding as regards what the Bill is trying to achieve and what the amendments seek to change. I believe that there is a difference between Amendment No. 5 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, and Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Amendment No. 5 seeks to insert in Clause 2(2) a requirement that the Bill should have regard to the population spread of each of the devolved countries. I believe that the noble Lord referred to them as the devolved territories. I hope that was not a Freudian slip. We in Scotland like to think of ourselves as a country. I am sure that was simply a slip on his part.
In fact there is nothing in Clause 2(1) that specifies that any of these people should be Scots, Welsh or anything else, or indeed English. It refers merely to two members who may be appointed by Scottish Ministers and to one member who may be appointed by the National Assembly for Wales and so on. That matter concerns essentially the structure of devolution and the fact that the powers to enact the legislation lie with those assemblies rather than a requirement to keep the ethnicity of the committee in balance.
The real point—I think that this is a serious point—is that the committee is a UK agency and whether we are born ethnic Scots, ethnic English or ethnic Welsh, we are all UK citizens. Therefore we are all eligible, or rather anyone else is eligible—we are not because we are all disqualified—to become a member of the agency. While the noble Lord has raised an important point that moves away from the thrust of the matter.
417 Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 concern a different issue. In Grand Committee I expressed great sympathy with the noble Baroness on this matter. I believe that I said I would be interested to hear what the Government had to say about the matter. I have come to the conclusion that great sympathy is parliamentary code for, "I am now going to explain to you why I like the idea but I am not going to vote for it". I still have great sympathy with the noble Baroness but the nub of the matter is we are discussing a UK body. I believe that in Committee the Minister assured us that all of the devolved countries had agreed that the matter was best served by having a UK agency. Therefore everyone in the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly is content that the body should be a UK agency, but the problem is that last year we told them that they had the power to deal with this matter. Therefore the devolved legislative competence lies in Wales and Scotland. Therefore I assume that the committees have been included in the Bill to deal with that matter.
While I thought originally that it would be an excellent idea to have a committee for England because, after all, as a Liberal Democrat I am a committed federalist and "home ruler" and that would be a wonderful way to deal with that, I then thought that one should take completely the opposite course. I believe that the real answer to this—I ask the Minister to consider this—is to have no committees at all. In devolving power we created, particularly in Scotland I am less knowledgeable about the situation in Wales—a committee system whereby the Parliament itself could establish committees to deal with these issues. I believe that this is a perfect example of where the Scottish parliamentary committee system could be brought into play. However, I am sure that there is some great technical reason why that is not possible. Nevertheless, I hope that I have explained why I have great sympathy for the amendments but could not possibly support them.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I am always delighted when the noble Viscount speaks on matters of devolution as practice makes perfect and his expertise and clarity of expression help the House in dealing with some of these issues.
First, I shall discuss the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, on appointments. I reiterate—I believe that this sentiment has been expressed—that the agency's board of members will be established to take decisions collectively, drawing on a broad range of relevant skills and experience. Relevant skills and experience and not ethnicity should be the basis of membership of the committee. Its members will not be appointed to represent any sectoral interests and those who are appointed to give advice and information in relation to issues of devolved interests will be expected to play a full role in other aspects of the agency's work.
I suspect, and fear, that this amendment would give exactly the opposite impression; namely, that the members fell into territorial groupings appointed to represent the four parts of the UK rather than working 418 together in the United Kingdom interest. However, as the noble Viscount pointed out, we have established that some members will be appointed to advise on issues in the devolved areas in that these parts of the United Kingdom do not fall under the direct control of United Kingdom Ministers. They and the advisory committees they will chair will thus ensure that issues in the devolved regions are taken fully into account when the agency's policy advice is agreed on a UK basis.
The devolved authorities that could have chosen to operate separately under the legislation have chosen deliberately to operate on a UK-wide basis. They need the reassurance of a link between an advisory committee and their Ministers in order to ensure that no gaps arise. That applies equally to individual members and to the advisory committees in areas where legislative competence exists but the relevant bodies have decided not to use it. However, that is not the situation as regards England, which does not have separate legislative competence because we are not in the federal position that the noble Viscount would wish us to be in. Therefore we are discussing a lack of a need for an England-wide body. I shall return to that matter in a moment.
I shall finish dealing with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. There are a number of technical difficulties here as well as the point of principle. If we were strictly to reflect the relative distribution of the UK population, Northern Ireland would be represented by less than one individual. I suspect that the only way to avoid that would be to double the proposed membership of the board. I suggest that that would not make for a workable arrangement.
A further difficulty with the amendment is the uncertainty of what we mean by seeking to reflect the populations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Would that be achieved on the bases of residency, birth or expertise? What would the appropriate authorities do in the case of a person of Scottish birth who headed an English research institute, or vice versa? Or, is it simply intended that each appropriate authority is allowed a representative quota? If that is the case, I believe that we then return to the problem of numbers, which I have already mentioned. I believe the main consideration is that mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor; namely, that we want people appointed to these bodies on the basis of their competence and expertise. We risk straying from the true purpose of the members appointed by the devolved authorities, which is to provide advice and information on behalf of the regional committees while working fully within the framework of the agency's board. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that the interests of England will be adequately reflected in the agency's decisions.
The amendment is both unnecessary and counter-productive. There are precedents for consultation on appointments and clear examples of how people appointed in the past on the recommendation of the relevant Secretary of State—or by the devolved legislatures—can make a contribution to the general 419 work of the committee. They bring their own expertise, not simply a sectional interest. None of us would wish to see the food standards agency set up on a sectional basis when it reflects the desire of all these administrations to work together on a UK basis.
I shall turn now to Amendments Nos. 6 and 7. We spent some time debating how the agency will operate in the context of devolution. It is widely accepted that it makes good sense for the food standards agency to operate as a United Kingdom body. However, because food safety and standards are devolved matters, special provisions are needed to ensure that the interests of the devolved authorities are respected. The advisory committees are part of those provisions.
I do not accept the argument that matters of special interest to England would be neglected because there would be no advisory committee to argue the case for England with the agency. That argument is misplaced. As I said, the main reason for having advisory committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to provide links between the devolved parts of the United Kingdom and the agency. This is crucial to the agency's ability to be an effective UK body operating in a devolved area. We now have a Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales in operation, and we hope to have a devolved government in Northern Ireland, where powers are in any case transferred. The advisory committees will perform a special role in relation to the devolved administrations and legislatures.
We do not accept that there is any need for a permanent advisory committee for England at present. England falls under the authority of the United Kingdom Government. We do not have a separate parliament for England, which could be used to justify an advisory structure for England, and we do not have a devolved English government.
As has been pointed out, England is a populous and extremely varied country; it is simply too big and diverse for us to take the same kind of approach with England as we have in the devolution settlements for other parts of the United Kingdom. The needs of England continue to be covered by the present organisation of the United Kingdom Government.
The Government have said that we are committed to move to directly elected regional government in England where there is a demand for it. But finding the right solution to that particular dilemma may well take some time. We have built provisions into the Bill for regional committees for England to be set up later if they are needed in response to any developments in Government regional policy. But, again, that would reflect an interface with an authority rather than the representation of a sectional interest. The amendment would remove the, option of having regional committees later in favour of a requirement to have an unnecessary and unwieldy England committee now.
It is misleading to suggest that the needs of England will be neglected. I should point out that the vast majority of the agency's staff will be based in England with its headquarters in London. All the existing specialist advisory committees—rather than the 420 national committees—will be based in England. I suspect that we may be criticised for being too London centric rather than too devolved. We do not see a role for an advisory committee for England at the present time. But we have taken a long-term view and provided powers to set up such committees on an England regional basis if they are needed in the future. We believe that these powers are more useful than the restrictive approach taken in the amendments.
On that basis I hope that we will not try to use this Bill to reopen devolution issues which have been settled. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept what I say and be prepared to withdraw her amendments. Equally, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Rotherwick
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have supported my amendment. When I spoke on a previous occasion I got into trouble with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, about the origin of who made my shoes. I was not surprised to run into some flak on another subject on this occasion, although I was not expecting to be talking about the worries of territories and federalistic problems. I suppose if I do not talk about territories the noble Viscount will not mention the other "F" word and we will get on fine.
As to ethnicity, my father was born in Scotland, my mother in Somerset and my grandmother came from Ireland. I am very much a UK citizen and I would hate anyone to think that I was trying to raise an ethnicity problem. I was not. I was attempting to address a problem that came out of devolution. The agency could comprise six people—a chairman, a deputy and another four members—who could come from either Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. That would make a very unbalanced board. I accept that the people who are chosen could come from anywhere in the UK, but one would sensibly suggest that the Scottish Parliament would tend to select someone from Scotland to reflect its views and not, say, someone from Cornwall.
I am grateful for the Minister's replies. I will take them away and think deeply on them. On this occasion, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 5 [Advisory committees]:
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 6:
Page 2, line 41, after ("established") insert ("an advisory committee for England,").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I apologise to the Deputy Speaker. I heard someone say "Order" and I looked to see what I had done wrong. I realise that I spoke too soon. I apologise to the House.421
§ Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 seek to encourage the Government to establish an advisory committee for England. In her response to the previous amendment the Minister, in her usual charming way, declined to establish such a committee. She said that she saw no reason for it to be established. However, at the moment we have a situation in which restrictions on beef-on-the-bone have been lifted by the Chief Medical Officer for the whole of the UK, whereas the Chief Medical Officers for Wales and Scotland have not lifted the ban. If there were an advisory committee for England, it might well consider the matter and lift the ban, regardless of what was happening in Scotland and Wales.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. It is important to recognise that advice can come from a number of sources. The noble Baroness has given an example of the differing advice of the different CMOs at the moment. But those CMOs do not have the ability to lift the ban. The CMO for England has not lifted the ban. That is for governments to do on the basis of the advice they receive.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I appreciate her point. I was not suggesting that CMOs can lift the ban. But an advisory committee could lobby on behalf of its sector, which in this case would be for England. That is the point I was trying to make.
I raise the point because I understand that in France—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—it is the food agency which is recommending to its Minister that the beef ban should remain. I am happy to give way to the Minister if she wishes to come back on this point, but my understanding is that the agency is recommending the ban. I beg to move.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, perhaps I may clarify what I believe has just happened. We have been speaking to an amendment moved and then withdrawn by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, then spoke to two of the amendments in the grouping. On Report, the Question must be put to the House. The Question has now been put and therefore it is now open to any noble Lord who wishes to speak in the debate to do so. I thank the noble Baroness for giving me a second bite of the cherry. I presume that it will then be for the Minister to respond at the end of our contributions, and for the noble Baroness to reply. I hope I understood correctly that what has happened here is that the amendments have been degrouped.
I shall save the time of the House by saying that my first bite of the cherry on this matter was quite sufficient. I shall leave it at that.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, it was my understanding that Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 7 were 422 to be taken together and I tried to address the whole group of amendments in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, on his Amendment No. 5.
The noble Baroness was right in saying that the food standards agency in France advises their government. The food standards agency will provide advice to the United Kingdom Government. There will be no difference in that. I tried to make clear in my earlier response that such advisory committees are sub-committees that exist in order to bridge the interface between the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The noble Baroness has given examples that underline why it is clear that the advantage lies in taking the United Kingdom approach. It would be easy to have people who would, as it were, lobby for different approaches in different areas. However, I should make it clear that that is not the purpose of the advisory committees. Their purpose will be to give particular advice to the legislatures in their own countries and equally to bring to their attention particular issues that pertain in those areas. I suggest that it would not be helpful to set up an advisory committee for England when we do not have a separate legislature for it to advise. That is the nub of the issue, and it is on that basis that I suggest that the amendment should be withdrawn.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am very sorry. I believe that I am a little green on our procedures. I understand that I should not have spoken after my noble friend Lord Rotherwick. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 7 not moved.]
Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 8:
Page 3, line 7, at end insert—
("( ) Before appointing a person as chairman or member of an advisory committee referred to in subsections (1) or (2), the authority making the appointment shall have regard to the desirability of securing that a variety of skills and experience is available among the members of the committee (including experience in matters related to food safety or other interests of consumers in relation to food).").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I tabled this amendment with some trepidation since a similar amendment tabled in Committee elicited a response from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that included a quotation from the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I should not like to provoke a similar reaction today, although I realise that this may be a high risk strategy.
§ However, we should address the question of the principles that should be applied to the composition and manner of operation of the advisory committees, on the assumption that there shall be such committees for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the regions of England. It is important that the committees are governed by the same kind of regime as that which applies to the agency. I said in Committee that the regime for the agency has been set down very well in Clause 2 of the Bill. It would be a nonsense to have the agency balanced by representatives from a range of 423 different interests, but then to have the committees from the nations and regions which will be advising the agency not to be so balanced.
§ I entirely accept the point made by the Minister in Committee that there should be flexibility to form other committees; for example, committees composed entirely of consumers, producers or others with particular interests. For that reason, the new amendment does not include the other advisory committees. It addresses only those for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the regions. The Minister has sought flexibility across the board, but I suggest that we need a clear understanding of the principles that are to be applied to the composition and operation of the regional advisory committees. I urge the Minister to think again about including a form of words in the Bill to cover the advisory committees in the same way as the agency itself is covered. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord's amendment, as I did in Committee when he first moved it. It would be desirable to include people experienced in all matters related to food. Noble Lords who heard the debate in Committee will recall that I gave an example of a person who had worked in food production who felt that someone like him would be eligible, and the Minister kindly responded to that point. This is an important issue. I support the amendment.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I understand the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, to have the amendment on the face of the Bill. However, I have one small reservation. My experience of advisory committees in other fields has taught me that those who have special expertise may on occasion promote their own interests. I suggest that we should be extremely cautious with the amendment. It would be very difficult adequately to represent, for example, the major food producers in the form of the big supermarkets, while at the same time ensuring that the same balance was given to small food producers, or to consumers. That is where my difficulty with the amendment lies.
I would prefer to see representation from people who do not have any particular expertise, but who are able to call and evaluate evidence, and to reach a balanced view, rather than to seek the views of those with particular interests.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has returnee to this matter and indeed has referred to the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I appreciate the point he made about the need to be certain that the regional committees will comprise a variety of skills and experience. I need hardly remind noble Lords that the agency's remit is a wide one: from farm to fork. However, if the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, were with us, no doubt he would say that it should be from fish farm to fork.
424 For that reason, it would be wrong and counterproductive for the committees whose purpose, in the words of the Bill, is to give,advice or information to the Agency about matters connected with its functions",to be dominated by one particular interest. In principle, therefore, I accept the spirit of the amendment. However, I should say to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, that the selection process for the members of the agency will be vigorous. Furthermore, as regards the skills and experience of those who will be appointed to the agency, I should like to make the point that we are expressly looking for people with consumer experience as well as experience of the food industry itself. However, I accept the principle that the noble Baroness has tried to make clear to the House.
As paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 makes clear, the appointment of the chairman and members of the advisory committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a matter for the relevant devolved administrations. I am pleased to be able to tell noble Lords that the devolved administrations and the department in Northern Ireland have all made it clear that they will act on the basis set out in the noble Lord's amendment, seeking a balance of skills within the membership of the committees. I hope that that provides the understanding which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, requested.
The point raised by noble Lords is whether it is necessary to spell out this matter on the face of the Bill. I believe that it is probably not necessary to do so. While it is clearly desirable for a variety of skills to be available, I do not see a need to put these words into the Bill. I also feel that it is a useful distinction to draw between these committees and the agency itself. It is the agency in whom the formal functions, powers and duties under the Bill are vested. As my noble friend Lady Hayman has already pointed out, the advisory committees are there to advise in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are not many agencies with similar powers. It might be unhelpful to use parallel forms of words which might imply that there are.
I also believe that, in terms of the whole spirit of devolution, these advisory committees are essentially about giving advice to the agency in the context of the devolved administrations. I do believe—here I refer to the Liberal Democrat manifesto—that the principle of devolution should then leave the matter to the good sense of the devolved administrations to make their own decisions but guided by the principles which I set out earlier. I do not think that there is any thing between us on principle. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Clement-Jones
My Lords, I thank the Minister—especially in the light of my success in drawing him once again to mention the Liberal Democrat manifesto in the context of this amendment. It is always worth quoting again, as he rightly noticed. I thank the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her comments. The variety of skills and experience referred to in the amendment is identical to the duty of 425 the agency in selecting its own members. That is the reason for my choice of words in applying them directly to the advisory committees. In that context I very much welcome the Minister's confirmation that the procedure is a rigorous one.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her support for the amendment. It is an important one. It is a little difficult to understand why it was not originally put in the Bill. I recognise that a Bill, having gone through so many stages, sometimes has inexplicable gaps in it. I take comfort from the fact that the Minister said that the amendment is "probably not necessary". That was one of the most interesting responses I have heard from the Minister for quite a long time. The level of uncertainty was encouraging.
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, all I was doing was demonstrating to the House how carefully we weighed up this matter. On balance, we have come to the view that I expressed.
§ Lord Clement-Jones
My Lords, Ministers normally adopt the criminal standard of evidence. They normally say "beyond all reasonable doubt it is not necessary" and not "on the balance of probabilities". Needless to say, we will consider what the Minister said.
I take comfort from what he said about the understandings that had been achieved with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I would press him for chapter and verse on that. I do not know whether that would have been an executive decision and so would be on the record or whether it would have been a committee decision— by, for instance, a committee of the Welsh Assembly. I would ask the noble Lord to give chapter and verse. I accept the point that the advisory committees are not executive agencies. Perhaps, on the balance of probabilities, there is a case for not treating them with quite the same rigour as agencies. But I have yet to be completely convinced of that. I certainly remain to be convinced that it is not entirely legitimate for the UK Parliament to set principles by which devolved advisory bodies and devolved other bodies should conduct their business. We certainly would not wish to give away that principle. For the present, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 9 not moved.]
§ Clause 7 [Provision of advice, information and assistance to other persons]:
§ [Amendment No. 10 not moved.]
Lord Rotherwick moved Amendment No. 11:
Page 3. line 31, at end insert—
("( ) where foodstuffs do not comply with any relevant United Kingdom regulation or regulations, providing information explaining in what respects they do not comply.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 12. The clause as it stands is too wide and far too vague to ensure what many consumers of both sexes and ages feel is necessary. In choosing animal and vegetable products, many people have regard to how their potential purchases are produced. Increasingly, they are opting for products which have been grown in hygienic conditions and reared in humane circumstances. They are also concerned about the effect on the environment and wildlife and the manner of the slaughter process. Many allow their consciences to guide their purchase decisions. The current popularity of organic food is one instance; another is the rejection of eggs from battery hens. However, surely the most outstanding example is the ending, in all but a small number of exclusive outlets which do not advertise their wares, of the sale of clothes made from real fur.
§ I know people who will not eat veal because of the way it is produced in other countries and because they have no means of knowing where the product on the menu was reared. I know people who wish to exercise choice if only someone would give them the information to enable them to do so. I know people who have been vociferous in their support for a Food Standards Bill—highly supportive because they imagine that it will set standards against which products can be measured. But this Bill is not about measuring. The agency is not being instructed to do anything that will enable the ordinary mortal to make comparisons and exercise choice on a daily basis in every food buying decision he or she makes. It is no good being told that the rules are X, Y and Z if one is not then told how to identify items which are not produced according to the rules. If everyone obeys the instructions given by the authorities, there would perhaps be no need for a Food Standards Bill; far less a food standards agency.
§ The standards laid on our livestock and arable farmers are not matched universally. They are not matched in the third world and they are not matched even in Europe. Yet we allow unmarked goods into this country to be sold side-by-side with our own products. In fact, we even allow in products which are then given minimal processing and packaging and are marked "Made in the UK". The agency may choose to interpret its role in such a way that the advice and guidelines it issues will enable comparisons to take place. It is possible that, after all the Government's assurances in this House and in another place, the Secretary of State will issue directives which incorporate measurements, standards and methods. However, the fact remains that he may not—and the consumer will be bitterly disappointed and let down.
§ It is said—too often in my opinion—that EU legislation ties the hands of our legislators in many areas. Let it not be said with regard to food labelling; not after the publication of the report into organic farming which was laid before this House last Friday. On page 10 of that report, under the heading "Imports", the Select Committee explains EC Regulation 2092/91. In a nutshell the labels on European organic produce must include the name 427 and/or code number of the national inspection body charged with ensuring compliance with the regulation. It may not be country of origin but it is as good as and does for organic produce exactly what my amendments seek to do for more conventional farming products. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 13. The work of the agency is to satisfy the aspirations of the public and that must apply without fear or favour to all foods, no matter where or how they were produced. If, for example, the famous European straight banana were found to be less nutritious pound for pound—or should I say gram for gram—than the old-fashioned curvy one, the agency should say so. If pesticides banned in this country but legal elsewhere are found in imported top fruit, the agency should say so. If growth promoters forbidden to our farmers are found in meat from other countries, the agency should tell us.
Without specific instructions to be all-inclusive, the agency is likely to concentrate its efforts on UK produce. The results of its studies are likely to be taken as criticism of UK produce and, what is worse, an indication that UK. products are not as good as their continental equivalents.
Perhaps I may give one example. In this country CCC—Cyclo cell chlormequate—has not been cleared for use on top fruit. Hence, any residues found in UK output are illegal. It has been cleared on the Continent, where residues of up to three milligrams per kilo are allowable. It was used in this country in the past before clearance procedures were instituted and some orchards have residues in their soil. Traces can get into the fruit and will show up in analyses with amounts of 0.1 to 0.3 of a gram per kilo. The pesticide inspectorate will then condemn the fruit while accepting similar produce from the Continent with much higher residue levels. The agency should work to set the standards that should apply to all products sold in the UK. It should test all fruit products on sale in this country and then, in line with Cause 19, publish the results.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I am slightly cautious about both these amendments, although, as one who has not eaten veal for many years because I know that we do not produce it in this country, I am unhappy about crates. I very much sympathise.
From my experience with organophosphates, I know that it is not possible to test every item or batch of fruit that is imported. It is interesting that, in 1996, 46,000 tonnes of apples were imported from the American continent, and only four tests were conducted on them by government laboratories. So we cannot possibly know which top fruits, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, contain pesticide residues. The thing to do is avoid their application to the fruit in the first place. As noble Lords know, that is my ambition.
I prefer the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady By ford, as it stands, but not her explanation for it. I am prepared to support it. I have slight difficulty with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for tabling the amendments They give me the opportunity to respond to the debate in terms of the action and responsibilities of the food standards agency in regard to imported food.
As all speakers have made clear, far from not providing information on imported foods, there is a case for arguing that the public needs even more, and clearer, information on those foods than on domestically produced foods, for the reasons that have been discussed. The concerns expressed echo many that arose during the debate on labelling. I assure the House that the work of the authority will be able to encompass those matters.
There is particular concern in cases where it is believed that imported foods do not meet the high standards of safety and animal welfare that apply in the United Kingdom. The Government recognise the need to ensure that the public are kept properly informed about all food on the UK food market. These are important matters and the Government take them seriously. Consumers must not be misled about the food they buy. More importantly, their health should not be put at risk by inadequate application of safety standards.
However, the amendments as drafted are unnecessary and in some respects even counterproductive. Amendment No. 12 in particular would give the agency the function of providing information on products which do not comply with EU regulations. I must stress that it is illegal to place foods on the market within the EU which do not comply with those regulations. That is the issue we dealt with in terms of Belgian food containing dioxins and we may well be dealing with it in other areas. It underlies current concerns about animal feed. In that case the proper action is not to provide information but to make sure that the law is enforced. That is an important point.
In the case of Amendment No. 11, there are certain instances where the United Kingdom has established higher standards than those required by EU rules for animal welfare or for public health reasons. Provided imported products meet the relevant EU standards, we are legally obliged to follow the principle of mutual recognition. We cannot simply ban imports because they do not meet domestic UK standards that are higher than EU standards. Nor could we or the agency legally take action which might be interpreted as disparagement of products which meet the relevant EU or international standards.
But that does not mean that the agency can do nothing. It can provide—and this is a crucial role—factual information so that consumers are helped to make informed choices. Clause 7 already provides the necessary basis for the agency to do that. We believe that it is not necessary to spell out particular details in the way suggested in Amendment No. 11, for the old drafting reason that it could cast doubt on the generality of the agency's powers or imply that these 429 points have priority over other issues. But that is not in any way to suggest that the agency should not concern itself with making sure that there is an understanding not only of the basics, but also of claims that are made.
If the agency's function under Clause 7 is to be effectively carried out and the public are to be properly informed, it must cover both imports and domestic production. I certainly agree with the intention behind Amendment No. 13. It would look extremely odd, and would not be acceptable to British consumers, if the agency were to give advice only on matters concerning domestic production. However, I assure the noble Baroness that there is nothing in the Bill as drafted to suggest that. It applies equally to imported and domestically produced food on the UK market and the agency will make no distinction in carrying out its functions. Advice on food safety and other interests of consumers must surely cover imported food. Otherwise, the agency would not be properly carrying out its main objective of protecting public health from risks. The specific point addressed by Amendment No. 13 is already covered by the Bill. The amendment is unnecessary. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to make those points clear to the House.
What we can do over and above the basics is address some of the concerns raised by taking steps to improve the accuracy and clarity of origin markings on food. Clearly, we must work within the framework of EU rules. But, as I explained in relation to earlier amendments, we believe that there is room for improvement in the interpretation of the rules. We have already announced our intention to take action to strengthen our guidance on the matter. The new guidelines will make clear that, where origin marking is given, it should be worded carefully, particularly where there might otherwise be confusion as to the origin of ingredients. For example, imported pork cured in Britain should not in our view be labelled "British" or "produced in Britain." That is precisely the point being addressed by the current consultation.
If there is a genuine and immediate food safety risk, the right course of action is not to provide information but to prohibit the imports. Where there is a real and specifically justified risk to health, we can and do act against imports. An example was the severe restriction on Belgian products because of the dioxin scare. Certainly, in the area of pesticides on fruit, where we were concerned as a result of monitoring that pesticides were being used and were over maximum residue levels we took action with the Belgian Government. The Belgians have now withdrawn approval of the use of that particular pesticide. I appreciate that we cannot test everything, as the noble Countess said, but there is a monitoring process in place, and we can and do take action whenever a matter of concern arises. Equally, we believe that it is in the interests of the UK to work with the Commission, within the framework of EU law, to resolve problems of this kind. That is exactly what we seek to do at the moment in relation to the use of sewage sludge in animal feeds.
430 The agency will have a role not only in ensuring that there is no misleading labelling on either imported or domestic produce but in supporting the work of farmers and domestic producers, as we are anxious to do, in positively marketing the welfare and health benefits of British produced food. For that reason the £5 million announced today is intended to help pig farmers who have been particularly disadvantaged by what we regard as misleading labelling related to country of origin.
I agree that for clarity and to enable consumers to make choices the agency must take action on all food, whatever its country of origin, and not concentrate only on UK produce. I do not believe that the Bill as drafted in any way suggests that the agency would do otherwise. The agency would not fulfil its main objective—the protection of consumers—if that was its focus. I hope that with that assurance the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Rotherwick
My Lords, I thank the Minister for some very good assurances. I was delighted by her remarks about the need positively to market various foods. I could not support more strongly her comments on what is being done in the pig market. However, one would like to see that happen in other agricultural markets. As a farmer I have never been against good competition, not only in the home market but abroad. However, I understand that it is legal to sell foodstuffs in the UK that have been produced in Far Eastern countries with pesticides that are illegal in this country. There is a query as to whether the pharmaceutical commodities used to produce chickens have an effect at a later stage. It is also illegal in this country to use growth promoters on beef.
We are interested in ensuring that these products are put on the shelves so that the general public can make an informed choice. They can also choose their preferred production technique. We do not want to restrict the entry of other products into this country but to ensure that the public can make an informed choice. It is not a matter of banning other products but of enabling the public to make an informed choice.
I accept the observations of the noble Baroness about this amendment and the two linked with it. I shall read Hansard and try to think of a way to get round the problems she highlighted. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 not moved.]
§ Clause 11 [Power of entry for persons carrying out observations]:
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 14:
Page 5, line 4, after ("exercise") insert ("reasonably and proportionately").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 14 makes reference to reasonableness and proportionality which featured in earlier debates. I should also like to speak to Amendment No. 17.431
As to Amendment No. 14, the observation powers are set out at great length. To some of us they smack of rather draconian legislation. We on this side of the House have no problem with stringent rules that are designed to tackle emergencies. However, as they stand, these rules open the door to heavy-handed action by bureaucrats of all weights and even, as provided for in Clause 11(1),
any individual (whether a member of its staff or otherwise)".
At Committee stage the debate on Clauses 10 and 11 covered, among other things, reimbursement to businesses of their costs of providing information required by the agency as part of its observations. The debate also touched on the lack of reference in the Bill to security of personal data. In her reply the Minister stated:
The officers acting for the agency … will be under a general duty to behave reasonably and proportionately".—[Official Report, 13/10/99; col. CWH89.]
She went on to say, at col. CWH90 that,
under Clause 11 the agency would only be able to obtain information that is reasonably necessary for the purposes described there".
§ Perhaps we on this side of the House do not have total faith in the basic goodness of human nature. We want this phrase on the face of the Bill. We should like to know that every employee, associate or person authorised by the agency is legally bound to act reasonably and proportionately. We should also like to know that the duty is instantly recognisable by anyone who has cause to consult the legislation, possibly in pursuit of a complaint.
§ I turn to Amendment No. 17. Clause 11 is concerned with the powers of entry for the carrying out of observations. Clause 14 is related to the powers of entry in carrying out enforcement. Surely, enforcement happens either when something has gone horribly wrong, such as an outbreak of E.coli, or someone has broken the rules. For example, in the case of food-borne contamination access to the medical records of those involved is reasonable. In this Bill such circumstances are not specified. Access is included in Clause 11, but we on this side feel that it is unnecessary in the pursuit of observations—so unnecessary that we wonder whether there has been a mix-up between Clause 11, where the provision now is, and Clause 14, where perhaps it should be. Certainly, in Committee we became quite confused.
Following that debate and a reading of Hansard, that conjecture was strengthened by the Minister's comment, at col. CWH91:
It is however right that it should have the appropriate powers to investigate if it is really necessary that it should do so to protect public health".
§ I beg to move.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with this amendment. Perhaps I may put a question to the Minister. In view of the fact that the Secretary of State has the power to ask the food standards agency to draw up codes of practice, will he refer to the European Union's code of good administrative behaviour? Earlier I gave the noble 432 Baroness, Lady Hayman, a copy of the code. I should like to see a number of other items included in the behaviour of officials: the absence of discrimination (Article 5); proportionality (Article 6); the absence of abuse of power (Article 7); impartiality and independence (Article 8); and objectivity (Article 9). Article 10 is headed,Legitimate expectations and consistency".Most important of all, Article 11 refers to fairness.
It may well be that these matters can be taken into consideration in drawing up the equivalent of the Section 40 codes of practice when the food standards agency is set up. Perhaps the Minister can say whether that will be taken into account.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, these are probably the most important amendments to be dealt with tonight, in particular Amendment No. 14. No doubt we shall be told that of course officials will behave reasonably and proportionately. If so, why not put it on the face of the Bill?
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and her team will stick to their guns.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, Amendment No. 18 which I have tabled is along the lines of the noble Baroness's amendments but is more specific and precise. It relates to entry to premises. The noble Baroness, and the noble Lord, Lord Monson, noted the powerful provisions under this clause.
As I did in Grand Committee, I declare an interest as a processor of fish, producing on to the market from about 110 outlets about 1,500 tonnes a year, so I have a certain practical experience.
Authorised persons are able to enter premises which may involve food processing of one kind or another. As was said many times in Grand Committee they will be reasonable people; we shall not pick rogues. But on the other hand, they might not be prepared to obey the "house rules" of the plant. It is a point that I made previously. The house rules are often more severe than those laid down by law. A plant which processes meat pies, or whatever one likes to think of, has regular visits from the environmental health officer and the health and safety officer. They have slightly overlapping duties. I fear that the agency person, with his or her companion, duly authorised, will feel that it is adequate just to be within the law.
I believe that that situation is totally inadequate. It lays open the owner of a plant—it may be an individual or a firm—to serious commercial loss. The buyers are nearly always a great deal more particular about how the plant is handled, and how the food is processed, than the law provides for. It is important for the owner of the plant that nothing goes wrong which would upset the buyer—it might be a supermarket—and thus lose a great deal of business either in the short term or forever; I do not know. All I know is that those representatives come round far 433 more often; they are far fussier. And if the processor does something wrong, they drop that business and go somewhere else. There is no doubt about that.
The point applies to me. In a previous debate on, I think, farming or some issue like that, we spoke of value added processes. I mentioned that I was no longer able to go into my own plant because my wheelchair was considered inadequate. I have to have a special wheelchair which remains in the plant and is scrubbed, hosed, and so on. Although the issue may seem small, it is precise and important.
On other small matters, it would be very bad for an agency person to be less well equipped—for instance, as regards what he or she has to wear—than the staff in the plant. They would notice that like a shot. But the important point is the protection for a plant so that it does not lose business. I shall later move my amendment because I believe the point very important indeed.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, not for the first time in the passage of the Bill—I have studied it through my activities in the Moses Room in Grand Committee and in Hansard—my noble kinsman Lord Radnor has hit the nail squarely on the head. We all know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, (or the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, if he is to answer) cannot put his or her hand on heart and say that an authorised person or someone accompanying him or her can prevent extra infection coming into the packing plant (or whatever it is). Therefore where the packing plant owner or managers use care over and above that required by law it is very important indeed that the authorised person or the person accompanying him or her, should do exactly what my noble friend seeks.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Byford. As noble Lords recall, I have spoken at every stage of the draconian powers in the Bill. Each time the Minister has rebutted the argument with the perfectly sensible answer that the Bill provides for "reasonable" this or "reasonable" that, and therefore why should anyone be unreasonable.
"Reasonably" and "proportionately" are probably the two most important factors in an efficient enforcement system. I see no reason, therefore, why we should not support wholeheartedly my noble friend's proposal and have it written on the face of the Bill. I would go further. It should probably be part of the general responsibilities of the agency and it should be written in Clauses 22 and 23 as well as Clause 11.
I support the noble Earl, Lord Radnor. Many small processing plants have special rules. If someone from an enforcement agency walks in unaware of those rules, and the owner is not present to stop anything untoward happening, the whole production line can be ruined because someone has made a simple mistake. We all know that no one will do that intentionally, especially a representative from the agency, but it could happen. The Minister will probably respond 434 that we cannot provide for every eventuality. But this issue is so important that we should listen carefully to the noble Earl and support him.
My Lords, I, too, support the noble Earl. I am struck by the words in the clause,any other person he may consider appropriate".Many businesses would want to know who this other person is, and how one judges that he or she is appropriate. However, the discipline proposed in the noble Earl's amendment would help people believe that those persons know what they are doing and will obey the rules of the house. The point may apply to fish outlets and many others. I believe that the amendment needs serious consideration.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, perhaps I may refer to what I hope will be the least contentious in this large group of amendments, Amendment No. 16, which I hope the Minister will move shortly. The noble Baroness has written assuring us that the amendment is purely technical. One always wants to go behind purely technical and consequential amendments! However, given the time, and the other amendments to be considered, we shall leave that for the time being.
Amendment No. 14, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, seeks to insert into the Bill the words "reasonably and proportionately". I was most taken with the remarks of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and I am grateful to her for drawing to our attention the fact that from time to time the European Union has considerable value. The code which is set up and to which she drew our attention could well serve as an extremely good model for this country.
No one wants officials to be officious; we want them to do their job properly, reasonably and responsibly. The question is whether the amendment would achieve that and I am not entirely sure that it would. Perhaps the Minister could comment, but I should have thought that all officials were under a general duty to be reasonable in their behaviour.
I believe that there appear somewhere in the Bill, although on flicking through I cannot find them, the words "reasonably practicable". I have wondered from time to time how something that is practicable cannot be reasonable, or if it is reasonable it cannot be practicable. But perhaps that is entering into the difference between "may" and "shall" and so forth.
Amendments Nos. 15 and 17 seek to move subsection (6) from Clause 11 to Clause 14. The noble Baroness brings an interesting point before us. I believe that the subsection is in the right place if for no other reason than the fact that subsection (7) follows on. That subsection makes it a criminal offence for any information to be divulged. If subsection (6) were moved to Clause 14, perhaps subsection (7) would not apply.
The crucial issue is not so much how the information is gathered—it should be gathered reasonably and proportionately—but that having been gathered it should not be disseminated illegally and people should have reasonable protection.
435 Amendment No. 18 was introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, and he had considerable support around the House. It is an important amendment, but I hope that he will not press it to a Division tonight. Equally, I hope that the Minister will give considerable assurances. From my experience working in the catering industry and having environmental health officers no doubt doing a thorough and reasonably balanced job in inspecting my kitchen, I know how irritating it would be if they did not put on the gloves, hat and boots provided. It is important that whoever is coming to inspect is obliged to maintain the standards which the plant wants to impose on its employees. I should have thought that that would be the case, but if not I hope that the Government will take away the proposal, look at it and see whether they can satisfy the noble Earl's point.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. Noble Lords have expressed concerns that officers of the agency will use their powers in an untoward way. I hope that I can convince noble Lords that there are sufficient provisions in the legislation and in the general conduct which one would expect from such a public agency and reassure them that their fears will not be realised.
I turn first to perhaps the least contentious amendment, Amendment No. 16, standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman. This is a minor consequential amendment arising from one of the changes made in Committee. Having added the new Clause 11(4)(c) allowing authorised persons to take samples from any food source found on any premises, it follow; that obstruction in carrying out these duties should be included as an offence under the provisions of Clause 11(8)(a). It is unfortunate that this was not picked up at the time and I apologise for the omission. However, it is a minor technical point.
I turn to Amendment No. 14 concerning a duty on the agency to act reasonably and proportionately in conducting what the Bill terms as "observations" under Clause 11. First, I confirm the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that the agency's authorised officer will be bound by the general duty, under public law, to behave reasonably and exercise a duty of care.
It follows that I agree entirely with the spirit behind the amendments. In the limited cases—and I stress "limited cases"—where the agency sees the clear need to resort to the powers of entry, it would most certainly be expected to exercise them with clear regard to the potential impact on the food business.
The issue was debated at some length in another place, after which the Government brought forward a number of amendments specifically to address concerns expressed about the way in which those powers might be used. I believe that the changes did a great deal to guarantee that appropriate safeguards are attached to the specific powers in this clause.
Clause 11 already requires that these powers should be used reasonably and proportionately. Powers of entry can only be exercised where it appears necessary 436 for the observations specified; an authorised officer can enter only at a reasonable hour; and his request for help and information must be reasonable.
At a more general level, the agency will be required by virtue of Clause 23 to take account of risks, costs and benefits in the exercise of its powers. I have no doubt that the agency will wish to elaborate, perhaps in its own statement of objectives, on how the principles will be applied in the specific area of surveillance. And we have already made it clear that the agency will prepare guidance to its authorised officers on the proper use of these powers.
I hope that I have managed to reassure noble Lords on the way in which these powers will be exercised by the agency. I now turn to the amendment spoken to by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor. I do not believe that he has raised a small matter; it is an important matter. I have sympathy with his aims in the amendment. I agree that it would be wholly invidious for an officer of the agency to put business at risk by behaving unreasonably or carelessly. Like enforcement officers themselves, the agency's officials undertaking enforcement monitoring should have proper regard for the needs of the business.
The agency's duty under Clause 23 to act in a reasonable and proportionate manner would, I suggest, include observing hygiene requirements in conducting monitoring visits. And it is self-evident that its authorised officers would have to comply with the law on hygiene matters. Furthermore, it would be in breach of its main objective of protecting public health if it failed to do so.
As any person accompanying an authorised officer of the agency would have a direct interest in the public health purpose of the visit and would be present at the agency's request, the same considerations would apply to that person as well. The noble Earl asked who the accompanying person might be. It is likely he could be a technical expert or an official of the European Union who might be auditing the member state's enforcement under EU provision.
I now turn to the specific wording of the noble Earl's amendment. We do not have a provision of this kind in food law generally and I believe that it would be inconsistent and unnecessary to do so here. It might be that the amendment as worded would leave it open to misuse, with some businesses imposing elaborate rules to prevent entry. However, I hope that I can reassure the noble Earl.
Enforcement officers from food authorities are required to have regard to code of practice 9 made under Section 40 of the Food Safety Act 1990 on food hygiene inspections when carrying out their duties. This code requires officers to observe,any reasonable food safety precautions which are required by the company or organisation under inspection.".That seems a sensible way to proceed and I can agree that authorised officers should be obliged to have regard to the relevant provisions of code of practice 9.
Finally, I return to Amendments Nos. 15 and 17 which concern access to health records. I listened with great interest to the noble Baroness's arguments on 437 these amendments. She was correct in pointing out that we touched on them in Grand Committee. However, I must say that the health records described in Clause 11(6) do not contain the kind of personal medical information held by GPs or hospitals. I cannot stress that point too strongly; food businesses do not keep that kind of information. But some types of food business are required by law to keep records which show that they monitor the suitability of employees for handling food destined for sale to the public. Those requirements implement provisions in the relevant EU food hygiene directives.
Where certification of fitness to work is required by product-specific regulations, this takes the form of a certificate signed by a medical practitioner or occupational health nurse. Those are the kind of records to which Clause 11 would permit access. I remind noble Lords that people employed by food businesses who carry serious infections transmissible through food pose a potential danger to public health. There are, therefore, good public health reasons for holding relevant information about the health of employees.
I must emphasise to the noble Baroness that we do not envisage that the agency will, as a matter of regular routine, be examining records of this kind. It will mainly be interested in looking at food itself. The need to use that power will be very rare, but our approach is a precautionary one. It is possible that in the light of a particular food safety incident or emergency the agency will need to look at statutory health records. I do not believe that that is unreasonable.
Amendment No. 17 in the noble Baroness's name refers to the agency's enforcement monitoring role. While the agency may need to visit local authorities to look at how they carry out their enforcement responsibilities, it will not routinely involve visits to food premises to examine their records. However, it may be that in some cases, as part of the monitoring activity, the agency will wish to follow up checks on local authority performance by visiting food businesses where enforcement is being carried out
The nature of the visits for enforcement monitoring purposes is, therefore, likely to be much more limited. They are there to check that the local authority is doing the job properly. Powers to inspect and copy health records do not therefore appear in this clause. We recognise that health records are a potentially sensitive matter and we do not believe them to be strictly necessary to monitor the performance of an enforcement authority. I should therefore be reluctant to accept the second amendment which makes the powers too broad in that respect.
I return to the initial point that the noble Baroness made about the respective clauses. I make it clear that Clause 14 relates to the powers to carry out enforcement in relation to the responsibility of those authorities and monitoring their actual performance. Clause 14 is therefore at one remove from the enforcement powers themselves. It seeks to monitor whether the authority concerned is carrying out those responsibilities effectively.
438 I refer also to the interesting matter raised by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in respect of the code of good administrative behaviour in relation to EU law. I understand that all the powers she mentioned are general principles of EU law which the agency will have to take into account. The UK's better regulation principles are designed also to apply the same kind of principles as the EU code. As my noble friend Lady Hayman stated earlier, we have already referred to the fact that the agency will follow those principles. I hope that noble Lords will have found that explanation helpful and that they will agree to withdraw these amendments.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, in the light of the assurances he gave, could he guarantee that a producer who under Clause 11(8)(a) intentionally obstructs an official trying to exercise his powers under subsection (4) on the grounds that that official was unhygienically clad would not, in fact, be guilty of an offence?
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, I should rather reflect on the exact terms that the noble Lord used and write to him. From what I have said, it is clear that the officers concerned have a responsibility to act reasonably where the practice of that business is concerned. If the officer were not to act reasonably, that would be a serious factor which would need to be taken into account.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, before I come specifically to my particular amendment, I hope that I am in order—I believe I shall be yelled at if I am not—
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, the noble Baroness is perfectly in order if she wishes to reply on her own amendment. However, I believe that she would not be in order if she wanted to speak a second time on someone else's amendment.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Radnor had not been spoken to before I spoke. I beg your Lordships' pardon and I shall begin again.
I thank the Minister for his full response to Amendments Nos. 14 and 17. We looked at the matter carefully in Grand Committee and we considered the purpose of these two amendments. I am glad that the Minister at least understood why I thought they were perhaps in the wrong place. I have listened to his long and full response. I should like to have an opportunity to read it in Hansard and, in particular, to speak to him about it further before Third Reading. It was rather a long and full explanation and at this stage it might be best if I did not press my amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 15 not moved.]
Baroness Hayman moved Amendment No. 16:
Page 5, line 46, after ("(b)") insert (", (c)").
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 12 [Monitoring of enforcement action]:
The Countess of Mar moved Amendment No. 16A:
Page 6, line 17, Leave out subsection (3) and insert—
("(3) Each annual report of the Agency shall contain a report on its activities during the year in enforcing any relevant legislation for which it is the enforcement authority and its performance in respect of—
§ The noble Countess said: My Lords, in rising to move the amendment I should like first to express my extraordinary gratitude to the Minister and to her officials, who have been incredibly patient and who have taken on board my concerns about what is happening with the Meat Hygiene Service.
§ The noble Baroness will know from previous debates and questions in this House and in another place that there are serious concerns that the Food Safety Act 1990 Section 40 codes that apply to food authorities do not apply to the Meat Hygiene Service. That has caused a number of serious difficulties for abattoir owners and operators with MHS officials carrying out their enforcement duties. I am informed that there is a section in the Meat Hygiene Service manual that is the equivalent of the Section 40 codes, but the vital point is that the manual provides guidelines only, which are neither statutory, nor enforceable.
§ Meat Hygiene Service officials are not obliged to follow the guidelines and all too often, as I have found, they do not. The guidelines have no standing in law and are given no weight when an abattoir or cutting plant owner or operator seeks redress. Any failures by Meat Hygiene Service officials to follow guidelines are meant to be highlighted by the audit system. The problem here is that the auditors themselves fail because they look only at the outcome and not at the methods by which it is achieved, nor at the standard of enforcement.
§ It is illogical, inconsistent and inequitable that Section 40 codes should apply only to the local food authorities and not to other important authorities which derive their authority from the same primary legislation, in other words, the Food Safety Act 1990. I understand that for technical reasons it is not possible to include the Meat Hygiene Service in paragraph 4 of Schedule 3, and paragraph 17 of Section 5 of the Bill. I ask the Minister for a categorical assurance that, when the Bill reaches the statute book and the food standards agency is established, the anomaly between the legal requirement for food authorities to comply with Section 40 codes and the non-statutory guidelines for the Meat Hygiene Service will no longer exist.
§ This amendment looks fairly obscure, but I am assured by the Minister that it will meet my concerns. I beg to move.440
§ 7 p.m.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Countess for her kind remarks. I believe it is only right to pay tribute to the tenacity with which she has pursued her concerns about the Meat Hygiene Service. The Government do not always agree with her in every detail and it is certainly not always a comfortable position to be in as the Minister responding to her. However, I believe that the commitment she has shown has seen results. It has spurred us into exploring ways of ensuring that the Meat Hygiene Service can provide the best protection for public health and also operate in a way which is equitable and sensitive to the needs of businesses.
The noble Countess knows that we are constrained by EU legislation and that not all the problems are yet solved. However, I believe that a dialogue has been established and that that will be helpful in finding ways forward for the future.
This amendment is particularly useful. It enables us to put clearly on the face of the Bill two points about the way in which the Meat Hygiene Service will be required to operate. I appreciate that that is not perhaps as transparent and easily seen as all of us would wish because of some of the technical difficulties to which the noble Countess referred. However, first, I can assure the House that the MHS will be set standards of enforcement performance against which it will be monitored in the same way as the food authorities will be set standards and have to comply with Section 40 codes.
Secondly, the agency will have objectives in respect of the better-regulation principles which will be set out in the statement of objectives and practices. Those will apply to the Meat Hygiene Service. This amendment usefully requires that the agency will then have to report on its achievements in relation to these standards and objectives in its annual report where it acts as an enforcement authority, which of course includes the Meat Hygiene Service. Therefore, we are setting up a transparent mechanism for monitoring how well the Meat Hygiene Service is doing in those areas and a mechanism on which Parliament itself will also be able to comment.
I turn to the issue of auditing and the way in which the noble Countess believes that that has been unsatisfactory in the past. We expect the audits of the Meat Hygiene Service's performance, which will be carried out by an entirely separate part of the food standards agency, to be rigorous and thorough and not to present a whitewash if there is something wrong.
I also assure the noble Countess that the Meat Hygiene Service will be following the better-regulations enforcement concordat, which it is in the process of signing up to. Therefore, the Meat Hygiene Service will follow the agreed standards of openness, helpfulness, proportionate action and consistency and will have a clear complaints procedure.
441 In summing up, I reiterate that we believe that the amendment provides a genuinely helpful opportunity to strengthen the ways in which we monitor the Meat Hygiene Service's performance. I fully support it.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am somewhat confused. The amendment tabled by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, refers to "the agency" which is presumably the food standards agency. The Minister has spoken mostly about the Meat Hygiene Service. Will she confirm that it is not necessary to mention the name "Meat Hygiene Service" somewhere in the amendment?
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, I can confirm that. The Meat Hygiene Service is an enforcement authority. The phrase "enforcement authority" is included in the Bill several times, and so that is in fact covered.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, again I am extraordinarily grateful to the noble Baroness, especially for her kind words. I shall not delay the House any longer. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 14 [Power of entry for monitoring enforcement action]:
§ [Amendment No. 17 not moved.]
The Earl of Radnor moved Amendment No. 18:
Page 7, line 34, at end insert—
("( ) On entering relevant premises an authorised person and any person accompanying that authorised person must observe the rules of hygiene enforced on those premises.").
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, in spite of what the Minister said, I believe that the amendment is phrased in an appropriate and clear way. I listened with the greatest care to what the Minister said. I suppose that what I said in Grand Committee and what he says now are much the same thing.
§ In carrying out an inspection, the authorised person and companion, or whatever one wishes to call him or her, would of course stay within the law. That is what I expected. They would perhaps be reasonable by their lights, but not necessarily by the lights of the owner of the plant which they were entering to take samples, bacterial swabs or whatever. Neither of those matters is quite enough to cover the burden of my argument, nor indeed is any code of practice. I refer to code of practice 9. I believe that all of us have had long experience of codes of practice, both in your Lordships' House and outside it. Such codes can be abused; they do not carry the force of law. People can get round them and ignore them.
§ I shall repeat for the last time that the point of my argument does not concern a matter of law nor one of reasonableness. In fact, it does not concern a government agency of any sort. It relates to a visitor coming to a plant and offending the rules obtaining in that plant. In all probability, those rules were set by a buyer, possibly a supermarket. Such rules would be far 442 more severe than any that might be set by an authorised person. On examination, it may be that something wrong is found, and the visitor may be in trouble with the people to whom he is selling. One knows how the marketplace works today in that regard. One believes that tomorrow one is going to sell 100 tonnes of a certain product. Then it is discovered that a visitor has not complied with the rules, and that is used as an excuse—or reason, whichever it is—to drop the order like a stone and go elsewhere. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, following a little confusion earlier, I hope that I am now in order in supporting this very important amendment. I supported it in Grand Committee and I wish to do so publicly. It may have been better if we had uncoupled some of the groupings. Perhaps then I should not have confused the House so much.
My noble friend Lord Radnor has spoken specifically of his interest and reason for tabling this amendment. I should like to mention two other reasons. I shall give an example which I know well. There are definite rules and regimes laid down for any visitor entering or leaving a poultry unit. My noble friend is quite right to say that it would affect the whole outlook if those rules were broken. I wish to add my voice and the voice of these Benches in support of this amendment. I had hoped that the Government would have accepted my reasonable amendment. However, as they have not done so, I add my weight and support to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Radnor.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving me, for the second time this evening, a second bite of the cherry. I urge him not to test the opinion of the House this evening but, rather, to hear what the Minister says and to see whether there is anything we can extract from the Minister on the matter between now and Third Reading that may satisfy him.
Because I am in the business myself, I understand fully the frustration which the noble Earl feels and the importance he attaches to this issue. However, I believe that this is perhaps not quite the moment to test the opinion of the House. It is possible that we can extract something from the Government which goes further towards reassuring the noble Earl. If he pushes the amendment to a vote, on the basis of what I have heard I am afraid I shall feel obliged to support the Government and urge my noble friends to do likewise. For that reason, I hope the noble Earl will wait for another occasion to see what can be extracted from the Government.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, like the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, I would not be able to support this amendment. I gather from the Minister that code 9 under Section 40 covers this. From my own point of view, the environmental health officer and anybody else who comes anywhere near my dairy puts on a 443 white coat, a head covering and proper boots and gloves if they are going to touch anything. I have no fear of being prosecuted for obstructing.
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, perhaps it would be helpful if I said a couple of words to noble Lords. I referred to code of practice 9 made under Section 40 of the Food Safety Act 1990 on food hygiene inspections. Codes to which food authorities must have regard are issued under that section of the Food Safety Act 1990. That code also requires officers to observe any reasonable food safety precautions which are required by the company or organisation under inspection That ought to provide the reassurance that the noble Earl seeks. However, between now and Third Reading I am happy to reflect further and to discuss these matters with the noble Earl to see whether I can reassure him further.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I thank him for his reply. The concern is about "any person accompanying" and not about the agency official. We have been given good assurances on the powers that are in existence for the good practice of the agency officials. But when an agency official chooses another person, will the provisions stretch to cover that other person? I believe that is where we are seeking comfort from the Minister.
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount. The position is that accompanying persons are not legally bound as the authorised officer would be. However, the agency could make conditions for the accompanying person. As I said to the noble Earl, I would be happy to reflect with him on whether there is something that we can do to satisfy noble Lords on that point.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, before the Minister finally sits down, he used the words "the agency could". If he were to change that to "the agency would", with all the force at his command and with the Government and the ministry behind him, I am sure that my noble friend would be satisfied.
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, perhaps noble Lords will allow me two or three days to look into the matter. That is the very issue that I want to discuss with the noble Earl.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I was quite determined to divide the House because this seemed to me to be a perfectly clear and simple amendment that I thought would enhance the Bill rather than spoil it. However, having listened to the exchange, I hope that I read a solid assurance from the Minister. Am I correct in thinking that what I was trying to accomplish will be accomplished and will be open to discussion? If so, I shall withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.444
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Clause 19 [Publication etc. by the Agency of advice and information]:
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I move Amendment No. 19 and I shall speak also to Amendment No. 20. The amendments deal with the Data Protection Act. At Committee stage my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish put forward Amendment No. 59 which made it clear that any information which is gained and published should exclude personal data. He expressed his pessimism about the ability to keep one's personal data to oneself the moment they appear on any computer.
Since our discussions I have looked at the Data Protection Act 1984 which states in principle 2:
Personal data shall be held only for one or more specified and lawful purposes",
unless that purpose is described in particulars registered under this Act in relation to the data".
Principle 3 states:
Personal data held for any purpose or purposes shall not be used or disclosed in any manner incompatible with that purpose",
for example, if it is,
It also includes some exemptions which cover national security, prevention or detection of crime, apprehension or prosecution of offenders, assessment or collection of tax or duty, salaries or pension payments and company accounts.
§ In Committee the Minister said that Clause 19(2) states that the agency may not publish anything that is prohibited by an enactment, and added that, therefore, my amendment was not necessary. I understand that the Minister has had time to reflect on this decision and that she may now be willing to consider this amendment again. I beg to move.
My Lords, perhaps I can raise the question of the Data Protection Act's twin, although it is not yet born, the Freedom of Information Bill. I congratulate the Government on subsection (3). Would that the Freedom of Information Bill contained anything like that. The requirement that the agency has to consider whether one thing is outweighed by another was one of the great lacunae in that Bill. I am glad to see that that has been filled in this Bill.
However, will the Minister confirm that when the Freedom of Information Bill is in place it will cover this agency, and that it is not intended that the agency will be exempt from the Act? Will he also confirm that the decisions made by the agency under subsection (3) 445 will be subject to review by the ombudsman and, where the agency has chosen not to disclose, that may be overruled by the ombudsman?
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, perhaps I can respond to that point first. Once the Freedom of Information Bill is enacted, the freedom of information regime will indeed apply to the agency. Although, as the noble Lord points out, we have already set the agency on a pro-active course of being open, that application would mean that the agency would, like other public bodies, be required to produce a publication scheme, describing what it intends to publish. There will also be an avenue of complaint to the information commissioner in the eventuality, which we believe will be unlikely, that individuals are unable to obtain the information that they require. I hope that the noble Lord is reassured on that point.
As to Amendments Nos. 19 and 20 in the name of the noble Baroness, I am happy to accept that they are helpful. The noble Baroness raised a similar point about the protection of personal data in the Grand Committee. At that time we made it clear that it was our intention that the Data Protection Act 1998, which updates the 1994 Act, should apply. On reflection we agree that these amendments concerning the agency's ability to publish information are a useful clarification to Clause 19. By including a specific reference to the Data Protection Act, it becomes absolutely clear that the agency is subject to the data protection principles that that Act contains and that the agency must, therefore, maintain the personal privacy of individuals about whom it has obtained information in the course of its work. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for putting forward these amendments, which we support.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, it gives me huge pleasure to thank the noble Baroness for her comments and for accepting these amendments. I am grateful to her and to her colleagues for looking at this issue.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 20:
Page 10. line 18, leave out ("in subsections (2) and (3)") and insert ("above").
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 22 [Statement of general objectives and practices]:
§ [Amendment No. 21 not moved.]
Viscount Thurso moved Amendment No. 22:
Page 11, line 33, at end insert—
("( ) securing that a code of practice be drawn up in relation to—
with a view to allowing as wide access as is practicable, and to encourage publications of reports and advice,").
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, Amendment No. 22 returns us to a debate which we had in Grand Committee on the question of openness and accountability. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that it is precisely to cover some of the gaps in freedom of information that I have tabled the amendment, so I would welcome a contribution from him at this point also.
§ We all agreed in Grand Committee that to enable the agency to discharge its functions properly and achieve its objective—that is, regaining public trust in food safety and food matters generally—it is vital that the way in which such duties are discharged be open. We also agreed that the way in which advice is gathered should be open and that such advice should be available and disseminated.
§ The problem we encountered at that point was where and how we could put this into the Bill. Clearly, it was wrong to put it where I had suggested at that point, earlier on in the Bill. In addressing the matter in Clause 22, I tried, therefore, to put it in a more reasonable place.
§ Clause 22 sets out the statement of general objectives and practices for the agency. It requires the agency to make a statement of general objectives. Subsection (2) goes on to iterate certain objectives which should be contained within that statement. Paragraph (a) covers consultation, particularly with members of the public. Paragraph (b) covers cooperation with other bodies. Paragraph (c) requires records of its decisions and that they should be made available.
§ Amendment No. 22 seeks to add what would effectively be paragraph (d) which secures that a code of practice be drawn up in relation to two areas which are slightly different. The first is access by the public to advice and information. I am seeking to ensure generally that the agency allows access to members of the public or interested bodies so that information it holds can become available to people who wish to seek it. It is, therefore, a reactive power asking the agency to react to requests.
§ The second provision seeks to secure that the agency makes a code of practice in relation to the publication or disclosure of information which it holds.
§ My last amendment, which I withdrew in Grand Committee, sought to impose a duty upon the agency to disclose information. I was informed at that stage that that meant that every last piece of paper which the agency had would have to be disclosed and there would be a flood of paper everywhere. I did not necessarily accept that defence. However, I accepted it as a possibility. I therefore sought to put it into the code of practice rather than to make it an imposition upon the agency, so that by and large the agency will disclose information which it has.
§ Without obliging the agency to do these things, I am seeking to bring about the greatest possible likelihood that it will. I hope, therefore, that the amendment might be acceptable to the Government. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Wilcox
My Lords, I rise to support the noble Viscount in Amendment No. 22. Throughout 447 the passage of the Bill we have argued that the agency should operate a presumption of openness. That means that information should be available unless there is a good reason for it not to be. The wording of Clause 19(1) which states that the agency may publish the advice it gives does not give a presumption of openness.
In Committee the Minister stated that Clause 19(1) gives the agency discretion to decide what information and advice it should publish and that that provision should be read in conjunction with Clause 22(2)(c) which requires the agency to keep records of its decisions and the information on which those decisions are based.
This provision is most welcome but not as broad as a presumption of openness. I believe that a firmer and more explicit general statement is needed that the agency should operate openly. I feel particularly keen to support the amendment at this time. I have just returned from the United States of America where I have been looking at science in society with the Select Committee on Science to find out why the American public seem to have more confidence, faith and trust in their scientists and in the advice they are given. I returned astonished at the amount of openness they enjoy. I refer not only to a freedom of information Act but to a right to know Act. Many of their committees are obliged not only to be open but to print all their agendas on the web. Everybody knows what is going on; they can turn up and see what is happening.
Here is a wonderful opportunity for this Government, who I know are wedded to a Freedom of Information Act and as much openness as possible. Using the word "may" does not quite make it. I hope that the Minister, at this late stage, may listen to the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount and give him his way.
My Lords, perhaps I may start by again congratulating the Government, this time on Clause 22(2)(c). Would that anything like that were to be in the Freedom of Information Act and apply to the Home Office. It would give poor Mr Straw a heart attack. I am delighted that some other part of the Government has seen how important it is that that sort of openness is available to citizens where they are required to trust the Government.
I find the amendments tabled by the noble Viscount entirely helpful. I do not know whether they are necessary but they certainly say something important. When members of the public want to know what sort of information they can expect to be published and what will not be published, to have in front of them a previously printed statement of practice will give them much more confidence that what they receive is right than wondering whether the rules are or might be seen to be altered to suit every occasion. I support the comments of the noble Viscount, but I do not pretend to know whether the amendments are necessary.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, the noble Viscount will be absolutely delighted to hear me quote once again from the EU document, Code of Good Administrative Behaviour. The first sentence states:Having regard to the provisions on openness in the Amsterdam Treaty and in particular Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union and Article 21 of the EC Treaty".The document contains a great deal about requests for information, requests for public access to documents and the keeping of adequate records and public access to the code. I cannot do anything but commend the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount.
§ Lord Rowallan
My Lord, I too, support the noble Viscount. We have just heard the noble Countess speak, and, as we all know, she is seldom wrong. It is nice to know that we are on the right side.
The Bill is so full of worries for so many people in all parts of the food industry that to have openness would be extremely useful. As was pointed out, it means that information will be available unless there is a very good reason for it not to be. That is a strong commitment and would go a long way towards making the Bill much more palatable to many more people. It also distinguishes between the publication and disclosure of information, both of which are important. I have pleasure in supporting the noble Viscount in his amendment.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 24. In Committee we debated my Amendment No. 69 which required the agency to submit annually to Parliament on the anniversary of the approval of its first statement a revised version laying down its current objectives and how it intends to attain them. In his response the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, stated,First, the agency cannot simply produce its statement and never review or revise it. As I said earlier, I see this as a dynamic process where the statement is subject to revision. I also agree that the statement should be laid before Parliament".—[Official Report, 13/10/99; col. CWH 123.]I return to that important issue again today. I am convinced that the Bill should carry a requirement to publish such revision as soon as possible. It should be included on the face of the Bill. Amendment No. 24 asks for exactly that. In the same Committee stage I also tried to persuade the Government to accept that an annual report and accounts should be a joint publication, but was told that that was not possible. Today's amendment is an attempt to improve the visibility of the agency's work.
§ Baroness Hayman
My Lords, first, I shall speak to Amendment No. 24 to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has just referred. We welcome the intention behind that amendment. It will be helpful in making sure that the final approved version of the agency's statement of objectives and any revised statement is laid before Parliament and the devolved authorities.
We touched on this matter in our discussions in Grand Committee and, in reply to the noble Baroness, my noble friend Lord Hunt agreed that the statement 449 should be laid before Parliament when first produced and whenever revised. We agreed that it would be useful to make that clear on the face of the Bill. The amendment of the noble Baroness does that and we are happy to support it.
I turn now to the amendment of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, Amendment No. 24. I welcome the opportunity to restate the Government's position on openness, which is at the heart of the food standards agency.
In his introduction to the White Paper—The Food Standards Agency; A Force for Change—my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that we were determined to do away with the old climate of secrecy and suspicion and replace it with modern, open arrangements which will deliver real improvements in standards. We back that up with a set of guiding principles for the agency which state quite clearly that the agency's decision-making processes will be open, transparent and consultative in order that interested parties, including representatives of the public, have the opportunity to make their views known; can see the basis on which decisions are being taken; and are able to reach an informed judgment about the quality of the agency's processes and decisions.
That is a powerful manifesto for openness, as noble Lords will agree, and I can perhaps say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that it is not all jam tomorrow. It is not only in America that on the Internet are published the agendas and minutes of advisory committees. We have been doing that with the advisory committees that MAFF runs. We have also opened up the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods so that people can see applications and make their views known on the applications so that they can participate. We are therefore actively engaged in exactly the sort of opening-up process in order to build consumer confidence to which the noble Baroness is committed.
Clause 22 provides for the agency to draw up and agree with the appropriate authorities a statement of the general objectives it intends to pursue and the general practices it intends to adopt. That statement provides a useful vehicle to give effect to the guiding principles. Amendment No. 22 points us towards a helpful way forward.
Clause 23 then clearly requires the agency to have due regard to its statement in carrying out its functions and Clause 24 provides a basis on which Ministers can direct the agency if it seriously fails so to do. So the statement will directly influence the way in which the agency operates. Moreover, Clause 22 explicitly requires that the statement must include objectives relating to consultation on all the agency's activities and on the way in which it will make public its decisions and the information on which they are based. Here it uses much the same words as we set out in the guiding principles.
450 There are also other provisions in the Bill which add to what I have previously described as a general presumption of openness. Clause 7(2) says that the agency shall carry out its function of giving advice and information to the publicwith a view to ensuring that members of the public are kept adequately informed about and advised in respect of matters which the Agency considers significantly affect their capacity to make informed decisions about food".Clause 19 empowers the agency to publish advice and information. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, pointed out, that is an unusual power since the agency is expressly able to publish the policy advice it gives to Ministers. As no other public body in my knowledge has been given a power of quite this kind, there is a clear presumption here that Parliament expects the agency to make use of this power. And although, rightly, the agency has to take account of legitimate considerations of confidentiality, Clause 19(3) makes clear that any considerations of confidentiality must be so strong as to outweigh the public interest in the advice or information being published.
All of that adds up to a very strong steer that the agency will operate openly and take a proactive role in getting information into the public domain as well as the freedom of information regime applying to it, as I said earlier. Therefore much of what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, is seeking to achieve is already addressed in the Bill. The genie of openness is out of the bottle in relation to the food standards agency and it is not possible to put it back. However, the code of practice the noble Viscount suggests is a sensible approach. Once such a code is in place and published, the public will be able to see very clearly the basis on which the agency is operating and how it applies the general presumption of openness in practice. It will not necessarily be possible to set out specific criteria covering each individual circumstance which must be judged on its merits, but it can and will set out the general principles by which the agency will abide.
I do not believe it is necessary to insert the words about such a code of practice into the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, hinted, such a code could naturally flow out of the existing Clause 22(2)(c). But I can give the noble Viscount an assurance tonight that the agency will devise and publish such a code as part of the documentation referred to in its statement of objectives and practices which will be laid before Parliament in the light of Amendment No. 24, if and when that is accepted. I can further give the assurance to the noble Viscount and to the House that Ministers will ensure that before approving any draft statement, that point will have been addressed by the agency. I hope that, on the basis that there is a clear intention and an assurance that that intention of initiating just the sort of code of practice referred to in the amendment will be delivered on, the noble Viscount will feel sufficiently reassured that what he wishes to see will in fact come about and will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this important and 451 interesting debate, and for the general level of support for the concept that I was putting forward. I am also thankful to the Minister for the generous way in which she went virtually the whole way to giving me everything I want short of actually saying that the Government would accept the amendment. I do not believe she could have gone any further if she had tried.
I have nothing further to add. The fact that the noble Baroness gave the House an assurance that a code of practice will be drawn up and that it will be acted upon is more than sufficient. If, for any reason, it does not take place, then my successors if not my heirs can hold her to account. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 23 not moved.]
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 24:
Page 11, line 44, leave, out from beginning to ("in") in line 45 and insert ("As soon as practicable after a statement is approved under subsection (5), the Agency shall—
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I have already spoken to Amendment No. 24. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 23 [Power to modify enactments about disclosure of information]:
§ [Amendment No. 25 not moved.]
§ Clause 33 [Consequences of Agency losing certain functions]:
Lord Rotherwick moved Amendment No. 26:
Page 18, line 39, at end insert ("or
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 26 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 29. As matters stand, were the Scottish Parliament to decide to take responsibility for food matters back to itself, the current Bill would make that possible. However, there is one glaring omission. The Bill contains nothing that lays down the summary closure of the tenure of the members appointed by the Scottish Minister. In fact, the Bill as it stands specifically states in Schedule 1 that the only grounds on which an agency member can be removed from office is if he has run out of money or momentum.
§ Doubtless it would be hoped, even expected, that in the circumstances of a reversion of responsibility to a devolved territory—perhaps I should call this a "devolved country", so that I get the support of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, although I doubt that he will hear me at this point—the members involved would do the decent thing and resign. There are plenty of examples throughout history of people who have failed to do the decent thing. I would not wish to see this legislation allow it to happen again. I believe that 452 we need to include a clause covering the termination of office on the face of the Bill and to widen the reasons for the removal of the office in that part of the schedule which deals with such matters. There would then be no doubt of what had to happen and what was intended.
In Committee, Ministers distributed the most helpful digest of definitions at the end of this small section of the Bill on how the courts in future years will interpret the terms used in the Bill:
A court will start interpreting an enactment by determining the ordinary meaning of the words used".
I take that to mean that if the words are not there, the enactment may be interpreted rather differently than originally intended. In this case, I suggest that we ensure that the words are there. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 28, tabled in my name which forms part of this grouping.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, confirmed that being appointed to the agency in one position would not bar a person from being re-appointed in any other. He referred me to Schedule 1 and assured me that paragraph 2(1) provides that,on ceasing to hold that office, [a person] is eligible for re-appointment";In other words, there could be re-appointment in any other position. I beg leave to disagree with the noble Lord's interpretation, though he will no doubt tell me that I am wrong. I must remind noble Lords of the quote mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rotherwick regarding how the courts decide the meaning of the "words used". I agree with my noble friend. If the required words are not used, the courts could be forgiven for taking a different meaning from that intended.
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, we return, yet again, to matters of devolution. As the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, pointed out, we debated the purpose of Clause 33 very fully in Committee. My noble friend Lady Hayman explained then that the clause was in the Bill to deal with the unlikely possibility that Scotland or Northern Ireland might want to withdraw from the agency, or some of its functions, at some stage in the future—as, of course, would be possible under the devolution Acts.
As my noble friend explained in Committee, if Scotland or Northern Ireland opted out of the agency, it would clearly no longer be appropriate to have a member of the agency appointed by the devolved authority in Scotland or Northern Ireland. This is precisely the sort of reason why we need to have Clause 33. I can fully assure the noble Lord that the clause is wide enough to cover the question of appointments. Subsection (2) says:Her Majesty may by Order in Council make provision (a) modifying this or any other Act as She considers necessary or expedient".That would clearly involve modifying the appointment provisions as set out in Clause 2 and Schedule 1.
453 Therefore, neither of these amendments is necessary in legal terms. Indeed, the width of Clause 33 would enable us to deal with any situation that might arise. However, I should tell the noble Lord that I believe that this is rather hypothetical, as the devolved authorities have said that they wish to have a UK agency.
Amendment No. 28, tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, deals with a slightly different point on appointments, which was addressed in Committee. I should make it clear that we do not want to exclude experienced members from the agency simply because they have filled one term of office. That is why we specified that, after holding office, members are eligible for re-appointment.
We believe that the amendment is unnecessary. In specifying that former members of the agency are eligible for re-appointment, it is implicit that they are only eligible for re-appointment to the posts that they are eligible to fill. There is no need to specify that in the Bill. For example, there is absolutely nothing to stop anyone who has served one term as a member from later being appointed chairman or deputy if he or she is the best person for the job. I hope that I have reassured the noble Baroness on that point.
§ Lord Rotherwick
My Lords, I listened with great care to the reasonable assurances given by the Minister on Clause 33. In that light, I shall look again most closely at them. In the absence of support from other noble Lords, I feel that I must beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Clause 43 [Short title, commencement and extent]:
Baroness Hayman moved Amendment No. 27:
Page 24, line 9, after ("6(2)") insert ("and (5)").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to government Amendment No. 30. I hope that I do not raise the suspicions of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, if I say that these are technical and drafting amendments, similar to amendments made for Northern Ireland in Committee.
§ I apologise to the House for bringing forward such amendments at this late stage, but, on further study, Northern Ireland colleagues felt that it was necessary to make some further amendments to the provisions of Part I of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, as they apply to Northern Ireland, in order to ensure that the situation there is consistent with the powers available in Great Britain. As I say, I regret that we have to make such technical changes on Report, but they are simply to ensure consistency. I recommend the amendments to the House. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.454
§ Schedule 1 [Constitution etc. of the Agency]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 28 and 29 not moved.]
§ Schedule 5 [Minor and consequential amendments]:
Baroness Hayman moved Amendment No. 30:
Page 37, line 6, leave out from beginning to end of line 13 and insert—
("(5) In section 25(2) (application of Act to Northern Ireland)—
This sub-paragraph shall come into force on the passing of this Act.
(6) In section 25(2) as amended by paragraph (5)—
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.