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Baroness Wilcox: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 67. In addressing this amendment, I should first like to express my support for the sentiments of the wording in Clause 22(2)(c). The openness of the decision-making process is crucial to restoring public confidence in decision-making about food. Consumers need to be sure that all the factors and interests have been properly balanced in the decision-making process. Having it specified in legislation that,


is a considerable step forward. I recall that the National Consumer Council proposed to the Select Committee looking at the draft freedom of information Bill that such sentiments should be included in a “purpose" clause for that legislation. The purpose of my amendment, however, is to ensure that this important provision will apply to a range of decision-making by the agency.

Perhaps the Minister will kindly respond to the following. Will the provision relate to decisions taken by the advisory committees of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as established in Clause 5 of the Bill? Will it cover the decisions of the agency's advisory committees? The agency is due to provide the secretariat for some of the advisory committees, including those on the Microbiological Safety of Food and on Novel Foods and Processes. Will this provision apply to them?

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How will the provision apply to committees where the agency is providing the secretariat jointly with a government department? For instance, the agency and Department of Health jointly will provide the secretariat for the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA). Will they be open about the decisions taken there? Will the provision cover decision-making of bodies on which the agency has a representative? For example, the agency will nominate members on to the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the Veterinary Products Committee; will this provision apply to them?

I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify these points. The decisions taken by many of these committees will be of considerable interest to consumers and have consequences for public health. Therefore I submit that the decision-making process should be as open as possible for them as well as for the agency's board itself.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This is an important and interesting debate. We all share the desire that this agency will work effectively and restore public confidence. We all agree that one of the ways that public confidence will be restored and maintained is that the agency needs to act in an open, consultative and transparent way. I very much share that view. It is the philosophy that the Government have expressed in the White Paper and in terms of the drafting of this Bill. Although I would not recommend acceptance of the amendments that have been proposed in this debate, the spirit expressed by the movers of them are in fact going to be very much reflected in the practice of the agency.

I turn first to Amendment No. 64 which is concerned with the suggestion in relation to statements and the question of consultation. I am confident that the agency will wish to consult relevant parties during the preparation of the statement. As I have already said, we expect the agency to operate in a consultative way by virtue of Clause 22 and the current drafting of the clause certainly allows it the option of deciding to go for formal consultation. It is right, however, that we should give the agency some discretion in deciding whether or not to do this. It is also worth making the point that once the statement is published, people will almost certainly comment upon it. I would also expect, as has been referred to in previous debate, that the agency will review the statement from time to time and that there will essentially be a developing, dynamic process of statements, working out in practice, feedback and revision of statements, which will be developing during the lifetime of the agency.

I turn to Amendment No. 65. I am glad to have the opportunity to say something about administrative concordats because they have been the subject of much interest. I should stress that these will not be legal documents. The purpose is to ensure effective working relationships between the agency and other government departments with which it deals regularly. Essentially, they are about the nuts and bolts of the agency's daily dealings with other departments and they will set out the way in which officials will deal with

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each other. Similar documentation has already been prepared and published between the devolved authorities and government departments. We would also expect the agency to develop similar good working relationships with a whole range of outside organisations such as consumer bodies, the Consumers' Association, local authorities, professional interest such as the Local Government Association and industry bodies as well and public health bodies.

The agency's own concordat documentation will be published. I expect the agency, which as I said will be open and consultative in its way of working, will want to have informal discussions with relevant bodies in the course of preparing those concordats. However, one should bear in mind that these are about internal working practices which are clearly mainly a matter for the two parties who will sign them. In any case, these concordats are, as I already said, nuts and bolts documents, by their nature administrative and not a matter to be mentioned in primary legislation. Subsection (2)(b), taken with subsection(2)(a), has already achieved the aim behind the amendment.

I turn to Amendment No. 66, which also concerns consultation with members of the public. I recognise how important it is for the general public to be properly involved in the agency's activities. I expect that they will be consulted on all possible occasions and certainly wish to see that happen. I have no doubt also that the agency will wish to use a variety of methods to involve the public, including the Internet, conferences, market research, open meetings and all the other paraphernalia of consultation and involvement that is used by modern organisations.

That will obviously provide a rich source of information and views to the agency. One has to say, however, that there will be some occasions when it will be impossible for the agency to consult the public on a particular issue and take the proper action to protect the public health. I am thinking here of an emergency where there is an imminent threat to food safety. On these occasions, it would still be possible for the agency to invite some consumer representatives for discussion but, clearly, it would not then be able to consult the public at large. I hope the Committee will agree that the phrase “where appropriate" is, for good reasons, a practicality and a necessary qualification in this part of the Bill.

I turn to Amendment No. 67. I welcome the debate about the transparency of the agency and its advisory committees and particularly the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. Let me stress again that the agency's decision-making processes will be open, transparent and consultative in order that the interested parties, including representatives of the public, can see the basis on which decisions have been taken and are able to reach an informed judgment about the quality of the agency's processes and decisions.

Although this applies to the agency itself, there is no reason why the principles should not apply to the advisory committees. In practice they will because the

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committees are already operating with a much greater degree of openness, for example publishing agendas, papers and minutes and holding open meetings. The agency will have to take the advisory committees' advice into account in taking its decisions. Therefore the information they provide will be the type of information that the agency will make publicly available under Clause 22.

Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 69 which concerns the submitting of the agency's statement of objectives--

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 7.43 to 7.53 p.m.]

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I was responding to Amendment No. 67. There are two other points I should make on this. The noble Baroness raised the issue of a committee such as COMA and asked what the position is there. This is a Department of Health-led committee where the agency will have a share of the secretariat. My understanding is that the general principles that I have enunciated will apply to that committee. It is more difficult to comment on the other area the noble Baroness mentioned which concerns committees or bodies to which the agency nominates representatives.

Baroness Wilcox: I hope I may stop the Minister there.

I hear what the Minister is saying but I hope that he will discuss the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes because they are food committees.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The principles that I enunciated would apply to those committees. Where I have some difficulty is in relation to the other point the noble Baroness raised which concerned committees to which the agency nominates representatives.

I turn to Amendment No. 69 which concerns the laying of the agency's statement of objectives before Parliament. I agree with the aim of the amendment. 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. Clause 22 already gives the agency power to revise the statement and submit it to the appropriate authorities. I believe that it is right to allow the agency some discretion to decide when to go through the whole process of revising the statement, rather than to make it a duty to do this each year. We should also bear in mind that this is a statement of the agency's general objectives and principles, in effect its guiding principles, which will not necessarily change each year. Its detailed work programme will each year be set out in an annual business plan which will be published so that members of the public will be able to find out about the agency's plans and how it intends to put those into effect. I hope that what I have said reassures noble Lords about the statement of general

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objectives and principles. It is not something which will be produced just once and then put on the shelf. I am confident that it will provide the framework for the agency's work, and as such it will be revised from time to time and the results will be considered in an open and transparent way. I hope that I have given the assurances that noble Lords require in this area, and would invite noble Lords to withdraw their amendments.


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