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The Earl of Selborne: Perhaps I may take this opportunity to ask the Minister for an assurance that

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the specific requirement to appoint directors for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland does not in any way suggest that these directors should have precedence or particular weighting within the agency. Under paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 the agency is allowed to,

    “appoint such staff as it may determine".

If the agency determines to appoint directors for, say, regions of England, which might be sensible, or a finance director, which I should have thought fairly important, these directors should each report to the chief executive. There should be no implication that because these directors are statutory--in other words they are provided for on the face of the Bill--that should in any way give them undue weighting compared with the other directors. I am seeking an assurance from the Minister that just because we deem it appropriate to have under statute directors for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, that would not in any way diminish the role or the importance of the directors were they appointed for regions of England.

Baroness Hayman: I can give the noble Lord that assurance. The directors for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will report to the chief executive. They will not take precedence over others reporting to the chief executive--he gave examples of finance which I am sure would be there--but they will obviously have a particular importance in consideration of issues that are of particular local relevance. However, in terms of precedence over other directors, they will all be answerable to the chief executive.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Annual and other reports]:

Baroness Byford movement Amendment No. 13:

Page 2, line 36, leave out (“as soon as possible after") and insert (“within 3 months of")

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 13 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 14. I start by once again thanking the Minister for the meeting last night. For the information of those who were not there, the noble Baroness kindly confirmed that the financial year for the agency will run, as indeed normal financial years run, from April to April rather than from any other time. I needed to have that clarified because it has implications with regard to my amendment.

We agree that the food standards agency should report on its work every year. Paragraph 4 of Schedule 4 deals with the production of consolidated accounts. We on this side of the Committee agree that such financial stringency is necessary. However, we do not agree that these two things should be separate. The Government's Better Regulation Taskforce has prescribed both transparency and accountability among its five principles for measuring regulation. A system which separates report and accounts is not in our view even paying lip service to either principle.

The anticipated annual turnover of the agency as currently envisaged is sufficient to put it on par with larger companies in the UK, for which there is the

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series of Companies Acts starting in 1948. These Acts lay down the requirements which have culminated in the production of weighty worded well-presented documents, to which shareholders are now accustomed. One of the most relevant aspects of these worthy publications is the cheerful assured comments of the chairman, the earnest and more confiding prose of the chief executive, and a cautious commentary from the financial director which can be compared instantly with the turnover, fixed and other tangible assets, profits and provisions.

There are among my correspondents those who are concerned that the food standards agency may end up, particularly through its levying powers, about which I am sure we shall talk at greater length later, as a self-financing regulatory authority. A combined report and accounts will enable both Houses to ensure that transparency and accountability do not allow a creeping nationalisation of inspection and enforcement in the food production industry. Those are my thoughts in moving the amendment.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Hayman: If I can deal with the two issues raised, I hope that the noble Baroness will have been reassured by my giving the details of the financial year to which the agency will work. It is our intention to create an agency which operates at arm's length from Ministers and yet is properly accountable to Parliament and, where appropriate, to the devolved authority. The formal requirement to report to Parliament is an important part of this and of fostering a culture of openness.

The agency will report in the first instance to Parliament and must do so, according to the Bill, as soon as possible after the end of each financial year. We do not believe that there is any scope for foot dragging and that report must be made as soon as possible. Normal best practice in this area would suggest that that should be done before the Summer Recess. That is the sort of timing that the noble Baroness will have in mind.

Much of the information contained in the report will in fact be linked to the financial year, discussing, as it will, the resources available to meet performance targets. It would make sense to publish the report as soon as possible after the end of the financial year, when the information it contains has been finalised, rather than imposing an artificial deadline and risking publication of a report containing incomplete or provisional information. We believe that it might in certain circumstances be better to wait a little to see the true picture, rather than rush to print to meet an artificial deadline of three months and later have to present additional or revised information. This is not in any sense an excuse, however, for not reporting as soon as possible--that will be a requirement of the Bill, and it is certainly one that we would expect the agency to take seriously.

The report covered in this clause is not intended to deal with the agency's accounts--for reasons I will come to in a moment--in the formal sense that they are

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covered in Schedule 4 to the Bill. However--I hope this will reassure the noble Baroness--it will of course have to address the resources available to the agency if it is to have any meaningful discussion of its activities in relation to its performance target.

We envisage that the agency's report--as a non-ministerial government department--will contain financial information very much on the model of current departmental reports. I hope the noble Baroness feels that those reports have sufficient detail to check aspirations and claims against resource allocation. However, this information will not necessarily be in the same form as the appropriation accounts which are dealt with later in the Bill.

As a government department the agency will provide annual accounts to Parliament under existing legislation. It will also provide accounts to devolved legislatures, identifying expenditure and receipts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland separately. These matters are dealt with in Clause 39 (financial provisions) and, more particularly, in Schedule 4 (accounts and audit), which gives details of the accounts required. I appreciate and share the concern that Parliament should be kept properly informed of the financial affairs of government departments. Those are covered by the Bill as it is drafted. There will be a great deal of very detailed financial information laid before Parliament in terms of the separate sets of accounts which relate to the separate devolved legislatures and to the UK Parliament.

That information will be very detailed and presented in a particular form because of the issue of devolution but that is not to say that there will thereby be no financial information in the annual report. We would consider that in order to be meaningful it would need to have a degree of financial information which brought those accounts together in a transparent and comprehensible way.

Baroness Byford: I am very grateful to the Minister. When I put the amendment down we had not had the meeting last night. I am much reassured as regards the timing of the production of these two items.

It I can take the report first, from my understanding of what the Minister has said to us that will come to us before Parliament rises in the summer.

Baroness Hayman: That would be the intention.

Baroness Byford: I gave the Minister a chance because clearly that is very important. What worries me immensely is exactly the problem that we had in starting the Bill; the fact that we rise at the end of July. Normally, we do not come back until the beginning of October and sometimes things get lost. Those of us who take a keen interest in them I am sure would not lose them anyway, but they do tend to get lost. In tabling the amendment, I am trying to encourage the Minister on behalf of the department to make sure that we have the reports before the Summer Recess.

I move on to the second part. The accounts are of extreme interest to all of us who are following the Bill, not only because some of the money will be coming

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from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as laid down in the Bill--we shall be discussing that later--but, more importantly, because a big portion of the work that is coming into the food standards agency will come from the Meat Hygiene Service. That at the moment is done by means of a levy and can be raised or not raised--usually raised and raised again. Indeed, the Government have responded to the difficulties faced by people who are governed by the Meat Hygiene Service earlier this year and have raised charges. The problem has not gone away; all that the Government have done is to defer those charges.

Therefore, I want the accounts to be available quickly and clearly so that all of us know exactly where this money is coming from and where it is going. I am still not clear from the Minister's response exactly whether they will be included in the accounts, or whether they will be produced at the same time as the report, or whether the two are coming at different stages.

If I give way, perhaps the Minister will clarify that before I go any further.

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