30 Jul 1999 : Column 1781

House of Lords

Friday, 30th July 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark

Immigration and Asylum Bill

Lord Carter: My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:

Clauses 1 to 36, Schedule 1, Clauses 37 to 50, Schedule 2, Clause 51, Schedule 3, Clause 52, Schedule 4, Clauses 53 to 78, Schedule 5, Clauses 79 and 80, Schedule 6, Clauses 81 and 82, Schedule 7, Clauses 83 to 90, Schedule 8, Clauses 91 to 98, Schedule 9, Clauses 99 to 150, Schedule 10, Clause 151, Schedule 11, Clause 152, Schedule 12, Clauses 153 to 164, Schedules 13 to 15.--(Lord Carter.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Greater London Authority Bill

Lord Carter: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Whitty I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:

Clauses 1 and 2, Schedule 1, Clauses 3 and 4, Schedule 2, Clauses 5 to 17, Schedule 3, Clauses 18 to 30, Schedule 4, Clauses 31 to 73,

30 Jul 1999 : Column 1782

Schedule 5, Clauses 74 to 84, Schedule 6, Clauses 85 to 119, Schedule 7, Clauses 120 to 139, Schedule 8, Clauses 140 and 141, Schedule 9, Clauses 142 to 194, Schedules 10 and 11, Clauses 195 to 212, Schedule 12, Clauses 213 to 216, Schedule 13, Clauses 217 and 218, Schedule 14, Clauses 219 to 221, Schedule 15, Clause 222, Schedule 16, Clause 223, Schedule 17, Clauses 224 to 254, Schedule 18, Clause 255, Schedule 19, Clauses 256 to 268, Schedule 20, Clause 269, Schedule 21, Clauses 270 to 285, Schedule 22, Clause 286, Schedules 23 and 24, Clauses 287 to 328, Schedule 25, Clauses 329 to 352, Schedule 26, Clauses 353 to 360, Schedule 27, Clauses 361 and 362.--(Lord Carter.)

On Question Motion agreed to.

Food Standards Bill

11.6 a.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

I do not think I have ever said with more conviction that I look forward to hearing the speeches and the contributions on this important subject today. I consider it very much part of my induction into my new brief and responsibilities to hear the speeches that will be made in your Lordships' House from those who I know have taken great interest in this important subject over many years.

The Bill before the House today has been widely welcomed as an important milestone in establishing a new approach to food safety and food standards in this country. I should point out that there has been

30 Jul 1999 : Column 1783

extensive consultation at every stage of its formulation. Setting up the agency was a commitment in the Labour Party's election manifesto.

In May 1997 we published the report of Professor Philip James with the initial proposals for the agency. Last year we published a White Paper and earlier this year we published a draft Bill for consultation which was also scrutinised by a special Select Committee in another place.

The Government have been determined from the outset to listen to the views of all interested parties on their proposals. Food safety concerns all of us. The consequences of getting it wrong can be far-reaching. I do not wish to dwell on the history of food safety in recent years, but I think that most of us would agree that public confidence in food, not to mention economic well-being, has been shaken in recent years. Events serve to remind us that we cannot always anticipate what the problems will be; but, what we can do is to be more prepared when they do occur.

Creating a new framework for food safety and standards is a major challenge. The food standards agency will be a new kind of body based on openness, transparency and the best science for managing the risks to the public from food. At every stage of consultation there has been strong support for the agency. Where criticisms were made, we have listened. That is why we decided not to go ahead with proposals for a levy to fund the agency's additional costs, which will now be found from public funds.

We have also made a number of changes to the Bill in the light of consultation. I believe it is much improved as a result.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way and congratulate her most warmly on her new responsibilities. She will appreciate that many of us are reflecting with admiration today on the sterling work of my noble friend Lord Donoughue, not least on the question of the standard levy on all retail outlets and its removal from the draft Bill. He proved himself to be a listening Minister--in a listening department--as well as a very able one.

Noble Lords: Hear hear!

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I absolutely endorse everything he said about the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Donoughue, both on this issue and generally to the House as a Minister in MAFF.

I turn briefly to the main provisions of the Bill. Our White Paper set out guiding principles for the way the agency would work. First and foremost is that the essential aim of the agency is the protection of public health in relation to food. Clause 1 of the Bill sets out this main objective very clearly. It will carry out all of its functions with this overriding objective in mind, free from any conflict of interest.

Food safety is to be the driving force for the agency but the main objective goes wider. Important as safety is, food standards means something more. It also takes

30 Jul 1999 : Column 1784

into account the agency's role on consumer protection on food matters. So, for example, the agency will be the body with the lead responsibility on food labelling matters to provide consumers with the information they need to make informed choices. It will also have an important role in nutrition.

Nutrition has, of course, been much discussed in connection with the agency. I should make it clear that there is no doubt that the Bill provides the basis for the agency to take a significant lead in providing advice and information on nutrition matters, working together with the health departments who are responsible for wider public health matters. The Government believe that the public have a right to clear and accurate information to help them make informed and sensible choices on the food they eat. The agency will not tell people what they should or should not eat, but we know that poor nutrition makes a major contribution to poor health and premature death. So, the agency's objective to protect public health guarantees that it will take a key role in nutrition policy.

It will be critical to the success of the agency that we have first-rate people appointed to run it. The Bill deals with the arrangements for making these vital appointments. The agency's chairman, deputy chairman and members will be appointed by Health Ministers and their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in an absolutely fair and open way under Nolan rules.

The agency's members will need to have a proven balance of relevant skills and experience but the majority should come from a wider public interest background without specific affiliation. That does not mean that involvement with a food or agriculture-related business will automatically exclude someone from consideration; their experience is clearly relevant and we want the best people we can get. These important posts were advertised a few weeks ago and there has been a good response. The applications are now being carefully scrutinised.

At the core of the Bill are the agency's functions. The food standards agency will be established as the principal authority in Government on food safety and standards matters. It will have a powerful role as a chief source of policy advice to Ministers and other public authorities. For example, it will draft and make recommendations on legislation, negotiate in the EU and internationally on behalf of Ministers, and provide the necessary information and assistance to support decision-making.

In carrying out that role, the agency will operate day to day at arm's length from Ministers. But it will not be entirely detached from Government. Accountability and responsibility for bringing legislation before Parliament will remain with Ministers. However, food safety responsibilities will be transferred by the Bill from Agriculture Ministers to Health Ministers.

Experience shows that people want information about food which they can trust. As well as advising Ministers, the agency will have the general function of advising, informing and helping the public and other interested

30 Jul 1999 : Column 1785

bodies, including the food industry, on all matters within its scope. It will help people to take well-informed decisions by delivering independent and clear advice.

The agency will work in an area where sound science is absolutely essential, and where new developments are being made all the time. The Bill gives the agency the general function of keeping abreast of the latest scientific and technological understanding, and of any other developments relevant to its work. We expect the agency to take a strong lead in developing a sound scientific base for food safety. It will have a significant budget of around £25 million for commissioning and carrying out its own research and surveillance. It will also work closely with other departments and research funders to help co-ordinate food safety research and ensure that available resources are used effectively.

Part of the responsibility for keeping track of scientific developments will be the agency's ongoing monitoring of the safety of the food supply. The Bill provides the agency with power to carry out observations at any stage in the food chain, enabling it to monitor the general safety of the food supply, identify and track any problems, and inform good decision-making. The agency will normally seek to work with the full co-operation of the industry in carrying out that function, since food safety is clearly in the interests of business as well as of consumers. The Bill will provide powers of entry, to be used if necessary, to obtain information needed for public health reasons.

The Bill gives the agency a new function of monitoring food law enforcement. I should like to make absolutely clear that, contrary to the claims of some commentators, there are no plans to transfer general food law enforcement from local authorities to the agency. The Government believe that there are considerable benefits to the current system of local enforcement of food law and the agency will build on that approach. We are concerned about consistency and effectiveness. The agency will therefore be able to set standards for, and audit, enforcement by local authorities, working in partnership with local government to raise standards in that area.

The Bill provides also for the agency to be named as an enforcement authority for particular regulations. As your Lordships will be well aware, the Government's intention is that the agencies will take over meat hygiene enforcement through the Meat Hygiene Service. I know that there are strong views from people who argue that the MHS should remain outside the agency. However, we believe that it is right that we maintain a close link between meat hygiene policy and implementation in that critical area of food safety. We have made it clear that we shall structure the agency so that audit of the MHS will be carried out as a separate function from the agency's day-to-day operation.

The Bill provides for the agency to operate a comprehensive plough to plate remit. In its function of promoting food safety on the farm, it will naturally have to work closely with agriculture departments. We must ensure that we deal with the whole food chain effectively, without undue burdens of bureaucracy.

30 Jul 1999 : Column 1786

However, the agency will be able to act independently, if it believes it necessary in order to protect public health. It will have a strong input into other farm-related decisions affecting food safety, including the approval and review of pesticides and veterinary medicines, working with the Pesticides Safety Directorate and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which will remain executive agencies of MAFF. It will also have responsibility in the area of animal foodstuffs. There are new powers in the Bill to deal with that area.

The Bill provides a basis for the agency to operate as a model of openness and independence in government. Key to that is the power to publish its advice and information, including its advice to Ministers. The agency will operate with a general presumption of openness. It will have to consider any confidentiality issues, but it can publish if it judges it to be in the public interest to do so. Those provisions are an important guarantee of the agency's independence.

Although the Bill gives significant independence to the agency, it also makes clear that it must act responsibly. The Bill contains provisions which will ensure that the agency acts reasonably and proportionately and is duly accountable through Ministers to Parliament. Clause 22 provides for a statement to be drawn up of the agency's objectives and practices. That will incorporate the guiding principles which we set out in the White Paper. Clause 23 requires the agency to take account of risks, costs and benefits, and of the best scientific advice, to all concerned, before making decisions or taking action. Ministers will retain the power to direct the agency should it fail seriously. That is essential if democratic accountability and control are to be retained.

Clause 27 provides a new power to make regulations to establish a statutory notification scheme for food-borne diseases. It is a valuable way of improving the quality of information about the prevalence and incidence of different types of food-borne diseases, which will help the agency and other bodies concerned with public health to tackle food poisoning problems.

I turn now to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As the House will be aware, food safety is a devolved subject and the power to legislate will in future lie with the devolved legislatures. The Bill therefore contains provisions to ensure that the agency is accountable to the devolved authorities, and that Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may operate their devolved functions effectively. But it provides for the agency to be a UK body serving all parts of the United Kingdom. Therefore we believe that the agency will be able to promote consistency in the development and implementation of food law, while still respecting devolution.

The Scottish Parliament and the health committee of the National Assembly for Wales have both formally endorsed the principle of that approach. Nevertheless, if the administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland wish to withdraw from the agency and set up new bodies of their own, they would be legally entitled to do so. Powers are included in Clauses 32 and 33 of the Bill to deal with the consequences of any change by the

30 Jul 1999 : Column 1787

devolved administration. It might be convenient for the House if I alerted noble Lords to the fact that there will be a small number of government amendments, which I intend to bring forward in Committee, relating to some technical matters arising from devolution, especially in relation to Northern Ireland.

We have already made good progress towards setting up the food standards agency. The agriculture and health departments have now been working together successfully in the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group for many months, and essential structures to make the agency work are already in place. This Bill will make it possible for the agency to operate as a separate legal entity, and will complete work that has already been in train for two years. It is the Government's aim, subject to the successful passage of the Bill, for the agency formally to start its work in the first half of next year.

The Bill will provide the basis for a unique new body: authoritative, independent, open and responsive to the concerns of consumers. It will build firm foundations for a new era of competence in our food, from which we will all benefit--consumers and the food industry alike. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Baroness Hayman.)

11.21 a.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Perhaps I may formally welcome her. It would seem a little odd to welcome the noble Baroness to the House, but I welcome her today in representing a new department. In a way, the noble Baroness brings with her an additional bonus in that she has worked in the Department of Health. Obviously, there is a connection in this Bill between health and agriculture. The reputation of the Minister goes before her as being someone who is extremely conscientious. We warmly welcome her to her new position.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page