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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The argument the Minister used against me earlier today when I suggested that there should be a fish advisory committee was that we did not want such sectionalising of the advice. Now she is saying that one of the advantages of a regional system in England would be that there could be a regional committee from the dairy industry which could more or less give advice on dairy, and there would be a regional committee on beef.

The Countess of Mar: No.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I must be getting hard of hearing because I am pretty certain that is what the noble Baroness was saying.

Baroness Hayman: The noble Lord misunderstood me. Part of the problem is the drafting of this clause which brings together all the advisory committees under one heading. We are dealing here, as the noble Lord well knows, with the advisory committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland--those that are geographically based. I was asked why it might be that if we were to look at the English context geographical advice might be more suitable on a regional basis rather than on an English basis overall. My answer, and the example I was seeking to give, was that one region of England might have specific problems with a particular food disease or might have specific issues because of the nature of agriculture in that region that meant that regional advice was useful, not that we would be setting up the equivalent of a fisheries advisory committee. I was trying to give an example of the rationale that might exist for separate regional advice rather than national advice for England, which I thought was the question on which the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, was pressing me.

Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for her continued explanation. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this important mini-debate on the question of an advisory committee for England. It is a matter to which we shall wish to return. I hope that between now and Report the Minister will give further thought to it to see whether we can come up with some greater closeness than where we stand at the moment. It seems ridiculous that the Bill recognises and sets up powers to enable an advisory body for England to be set up, but does not do it. It already recognises that there probably is a problem, but it has not done it. That is not very good English. I shall read with interest what the Minister has said and will probably come back to this issue on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 16 to 18 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

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Clause 6 [Development of food policy and provision of advice, etc. to public authorities]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 19:

Page 3, line 15, after (“(or") insert (“, if requested so to do by any public authority,")

The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment designed to clarify the ambiguity of the wording in the clause. On my reading the words, it is not clear whether the agency can impose its help in developing policies at local authority level or whether the emphasis is on assisting with the implication that it will have been asked so to do.

It is right that the agency should prepare a national policy, for instance, with regard to the contents of labels, the designation of country of origin on processed foods. However, unless it is asked to do so, it should not have the power to interfere with the formation of policy at local levels. It might be acceptable and feasible to advise national government that all government-run subsidised canteens and restaurants, for example, should offer at lunchtime a choice of three raw fruits. However, it might well be totally unacceptable and impractical to suggest a local authority school meals policy whereby apples are served on Monday, pears on Tuesday, bananas on Wednesday, oranges on Thursday and fruit salad on Friday, which might make much more sense. In such a case it is important that the legislation clearly allows local authorities to make up their minds on this matter. This clause spells out the fact that the Government may ask the food standards agency to develop policy. It is surely reasonable that local authorities may do the same, rather than waiting to be told which matters the food standards agency wishes to address.

Finally I am concerned at the cost of running the food standards agency, and the level of charges it may end up having to levy. For example, many would quite rightly say that council tax bills are high enough without adding charges for unsought advice or central direction. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps I can speak to Amendment No. 21, which is grouped with Amendment No. 19. This probes not only the wording of Clause 6(3) but also that of Clause 6(2) because the two subsections are linked. Clause 6(2) states,

    “A Minister of the Crown or government department, the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Ministers or a Northern Ireland Department may request the Agency to exercise its powers under this section in relation to any matter".

Clause 6(3) states,

    “It is the duty of the Agency, so far as is reasonably practicable, to comply with any such request".

So that I am absolutely sure I am not talking about legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament or by the Northern Ireland Assembly, if it comes about, or by the National Assembly for Wales--which would have to comprise secondary legislation--I wish to confirm that any legislation they pass which impinges on the food standards agency will have to be implemented by the food standards agency. I presume that the word “request" concerns non-legislative matters. I want to

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be absolutely sure of that, and I believe I am. We are talking about non-legislative requests and I understand that.

However, my question is: who decides what is reasonably practicable? Is it the agency itself? If there is a disagreement between the agency and, let us say, the United Kingdom Government, if it is a request pertaining to England, or between the agency and the Scottish Government, if it is a request pertaining to Scotland, who resolves any argument? I can see that the Scottish Parliament might say, “We do not believe that it is not practicable to carry out this measure and we do not accept the agency's response that it will not carry out the measure because it does not believe that it is reasonably practicable". These are strange words to put into a Bill as regards an agency and its relation to government. If the agency is to take the decision, that at least is clear. I am not saying I would be happy about that but at least it is clear. I ask again who is to take the decision as regards what is reasonably practicable if it comes to a dispute?

I know the Minister will tell me that everybody will sit down and hammer it out and that it will all be very nice on the night. That may be fine some of the time, but I have to say that it is not fine all of the time. The noble Baroness reminded me that Scotland has a bad record on E. coli. It is conceivable that because of that the Scottish Parliament may decide that it wants to do something which does not comprise legislation but a request to be “tighter" in some way. The agency may say, “It is not practicable for us to do this in Scotland when we are not being asked to do it in the rest of the United Kingdom". Who will decide on that practicability? While people may get on quite well, just occasionally in the past agencies and governments and departments have disagreed, and we must assume that all will not be perfect for the future and there will be disagreements. I would like to know how these words will be brought into play in the circumstances of a disagreement.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I shall deal first with Amendment No. 19. I understand the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that, as presently drafted, the Bill might lead to the agency imposing a policy on a local authority. I understand her point that she does not want the agency adopting an unduly interfering role in the affairs of local authorities, which are primarily the business of those authorities. I can assure her and other noble Lords that this measure does not allow imposition in the cases that she mentions.

In a sense, it is implicit in the Bill that the agency's function of providing policy support to other public bodies will be carried out on request. That is in the nature of what we mean by assistance. Nor would those authorities be under any obligation to accept the assistance offered by the agency. We would of course want to encourage and would envisage that the agency

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would normally work in partnership with government departments and other public authorities in the interests of the public.

In saying that, however, it is important that we do not preclude the agency from being able to contribute to policy on its own initiative. We have made clear on a number of occasions that the agency should have the independence to act wherever necessary in the interests of public health. There could well be cases in which its expertise and authority would be beneficial to a public body and in some cases it will be best placed to anticipate the food safety implications of a policy issue. In those circumstances, it has to be able to intervene on its own initiative where necessary. The agency may hear about a food safety problem and it will be helpful for it to pass on that knowledge, information and advice to other public authorities which would then have to decide on any action.

In relation to the suggestion made by the noble Baroness that the agency would flood these authorities with huge amounts of advice, it seems to me that for the agency to do that in an unfocused way would be ineffective and counterproductive. I hope that having heard that explanation, she will agree that it is important for the agency to have this function and that she will agree to withdraw her amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raises the issue of how the agency is to comply with requests for advice and assistance from the Secretary of State, other appropriate authorities and government departments. It would obviously be our expectation that the agency would make every endeavour to comply with those requests. There may however be situations in which considerations of practicality may not be apparent to Ministers under Clause 6(2). For instance, it may be that when technical experts look at an issue, it becomes clear that what is being requested cannot be done without the disproportionate use of resources. In those circumstances, we do not think it sensible for there to be a duty on the agency to comply with the request. We would, however, as the noble Lord anticipated, expect the agency in those circumstances to explain that what has been requested is not reasonable or practical and possibly to offer alternative options. In line with the agency's guiding principles, it would need to be open and transparent about the advice that it had in fact given.

I believe that in the circumstances it will be perfectly possible to resolve those issues through discussion where there may be disagreement. It is important, however that within the legislation, the term “so far as is reasonably practical" is a safeguard in relation to dealing with such requests. If the agency's refusal to provide advice was reasonable, the agency having made that decision, the issue of power of direction comes in. If it was reasonable for the agency to refuse to provide the advice that was requested, it would be right that the power of direction would not apply. If, for instance, the agency had made an unreasonable decision and it was perhaps deliberately putting itself on a collision course with Ministers, Ministers could direct it to comply and it would have to do so or risk being in breach of its statutory duty. I hope that, in

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those circumstances, the noble Lord will agree that the situation is covered and that he will withdraw his amendment.

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