Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Byford: Before the Minister responds, I wish to support the amendment. Over recent weeks, I have made visits to poultry establishments as part of my Front Bench responsibilities. The one thing which

13 Oct 1999 : Column CWH96

is made abundantly clear is that you must wear clean overalls, boots and hair cover. It is even asked that earrings are removed. I support this amendment, which is of extreme importance. The noble Lord has spoken on the fish industry and I have mentioned the poultry industry, but I suspect that many other industries will be faced with exactly this problem. I hope that the Government will accept this amendment.

The Earl of Selborne: I wish to speak to this amendment, too. When the Minister responds, it would be helpful to know how the producer stands if he tells the authorised person coming from the agency that, because he was not conforming, he would not be allowed into the premises--into the packing area. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether that would be justified in the circumstances.

As I said yesterday, like my noble friend Lord Radnor I have a packaging plant for fruits--not fish--but I face the very same problem that we are meeting with these very specific, and very desirable, protocols determined by the multiples. They are nothing to do with the sort of regulations, necessarily, that the agency will insist upon, but they include covering hair and the like, which may not always be a requirement.

If there were an instance which led to a loss of custom because a stray hair had found its way into a package, it would be very difficult to trace the person responsible, so there simply must be total standards maintained at all times. If that is what the protocol says, it must be enforced and it should surely be an absolutely essential requirement that the producer can forbid anyone--however authorised, and it might be by this legislation--to go into the relevant part of the processing plant.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): This has raised a number of interesting points around the whole issue of monitoring enforcement. I agree with the general principles expressed by Members of the Committee that it is important that this process is conducted properly and in a reasonable manner. It is my intention to indicate to the Committee that I believe that this is covered by the Bill as it now stands.

I have no doubt that the monitoring of enforcement by the agency will be a very important function and an important tool for improving practice. Over time, I am sure it will lead to greater consistency in the application of food law. In that regard, it is significant that local authorities and the Local Government Association have welcomed this proposal and they are working with the Government in undertaking some preliminary work to ensure that it operates effectively.

Let me turn to the particular issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in relation to Amendment No. 48. This would limit the power to require assistance to individuals who are competent to help those conducting enforcement monitoring. That seems to be common sense, but the effect that this amendment seeks to achieve is already provided for in the drafting of Clause 14(4)(d). This makes clear that

13 Oct 1999 : Column CWH97

an officer of the agency may only require a person to provide such facilities, information or assistance “as he may reasonably request." In our view, this would limit any request for help to individuals who are competent to provide it since it would not be reasonable to do otherwise.

In response to examples already raised by Members of the Committee in this debate, it would not be reasonable to ask a cleaner to let the officer have access to computerised records, or a security guard to show him a production line. I hope I have made it clear that, in those circumstances, the agency must make reasonable requests.

Amendment No. 48A was spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, who, despite the lack of an O-level displayed considerable expertise in that area. I am pleased to be able to place on record our recognition of the excellent work of official laboratories and in particular the high standards maintained by the public analysis laboratories and the public health laboratory service. Maintaining an authoritative professional resource for the analysis and adjudication of enforcement samples remains a vital element in the enforcement process. The work of official laboratories will be of particular relevance to the agency's function of monitoring the performance of enforcement authorities.

It is becoming common practice in our debates today to anticipate the Government's response to amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, anticipated the response. I can tell her and noble Lords that official laboratories were very much in mind when the Clause 14 provision concerning enforcement-related premises was drafted. I have thus included clearing within the morning any laboratory or similar premises at which work related to the enforcement of any relevant legislation has been carried out for the enforcement authority.

On that basis, I hope noble Lords will recognise that we embrace the spirit of Amendment No. 48A that we should not overlook the critical role played by official laboratories in the enforcement process, but believe that this is properly reflected in the Bill.

I should say to noble Lords that the exercise of powers in the clause will be the subject of detailed guidance to authorised officers which will set out in more detail how they should operate and what would be reasonable.

I now turn to Amendment No. 49 spoken to by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor. Again, the noble Earl has raised an extremely interesting point. I understand the point that causes concern to businesses and recognise the particular point about the implications for small businesses. I would again say that I believe this is already dealt with in the Bill.

The agency will be required by virtue of Clause 23 to act in a reasonable and proportionate manner. I suggest that this would include observing hygiene requirements in conducting--

The Earl of Radnor: Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. The point that should be made is that

13 Oct 1999 : Column CWH98

people who have these food processing plants have rules put upon them which they themselves think are unreasonable, so someone behaving in a reasonable manner might not conform to the rules that are applied. If those rules are broken then the order is lost.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath : That is extremely interesting, but in relation to the rules which have to be observed, it seems to me that the point I indicated in Clause 23 that the agency must act in a reasonable and proportionate manner still stands. Clearly it is self-evident that any authorised officer would have to comply with the law on hygiene matters, and furthermore, since it is the agency's responsibility and objective to protect public health, it will clearly be in breach of that if it fails to do so.

Again, I say to the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, that since any person accompanying an authorised officer of the agency would have a direct interest in the public health purpose of the visit and will be present at the agency's behest, the same relations ought to apply to that person as well. I very much sympathise with the general principle he is aiming at, but the provision is unnecessary given the virtue of Clause 23 and the requirement for agency to act in a reasonable and proportionate manner.

6 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne: The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, will be as disappointed as I am with the response given by the Minister to her amendment. It did not entirely take on board the concern that some of us have about the qualification of any laboratory or similar premises--and I quote now from Clause 14(5)(b):


    “at which work related to the enforcement of any relevant legislation has been carried out for the enforcement authority".

The problem about an official laboratory is that it may not be working for an enforcement authority. It may be acting as a referee of standards. Therefore this qualification as to what is meant by working for an enforcement authority seems, on the face of it, specifically to preclude the laboratory of the government chemist. This is the issue which I ask the Minister to look at again very carefully, and perhaps to write to the noble Baroness.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I will try to clarify this point. It is not the intention of the Bill to bypass the role of official laboratories. I agree they have a unique and important role in food law enforcement in the UK and in the EU context. The important point to recognise in relation to this clause is that it provides supplementary powers for the agency to carry out its enforcement monitoring role. It has no impact on the statutory role of the public analyst which is covered in Section 31 of the 1990 Act and the regulations made under it.

While I follow the point that the noble Earl is making, the question of which laboratory is used is not relevant to this point. The point that we are talking about here is the ability of the agency where a

13 Oct 1999 : Column CWH99

laboratory has been used--whether an official laboratory or not--to be able to pursue the monitoring of the enforcement authority.

The Earl of Selborne: I have not made myself entirely clear. If the laboratory is to be inspected in order to ensure, on behalf of the agency, that the enforcement authority is working to a certain standard, that is acceptable. I am sure that the legislation will cover that point and that any other laboratory would come into the same category. However, there comes a moment when you are imposing standards whereby the food standards agency will be required to assure itself that those who are setting the standards--which may be quite remote from a sample of food--have set standards with which it is satisfied. Therefore there will not be a sample of food involved in those cases. We are here trying to determine standards of food safety and monitoring how the official referee of standards has set about his role. The role of the official laboratory is quite distinct from the role of a laboratory which has taken a sample of food as regards determining whether or not it has achieved a certain standard. That is the issue which has to be addressed.

I refer to the qualification in paragraph (b). It specifically states that the laboratory must be one where work has been carried out for an enforcement authority. The example that I have tried to instance is where that would not apply. However, there will be occasions when the food standards agency will want to have access to the laboratory of the government chemist. Will the Minister assure me that if, for example, the food standards agency wished to assure itself that the official referee of food safety standards had done its job correctly, it would be qualified to inspect those premises?


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page