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Lord Luke: Amendment No. 111 is coupled with Amendment No. 75. The object of the amendment is to amend the Food Safety Act 1990 by stipulating that its appeal procedure could apply to the agency whenever it acts as an enforcement authority.
Lord Clement-Jones: I support Amendment No. 75. It seems to us a very necessary addition to the Bill. It is an odd situation that the agency has absolute power, particularly where it has direct enforcement powers. That is an area where we feel most uncomfortable and we feel that the appeals procedure envisaged by this amendment would be of most value. We believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has put forward strong arguments in that regard.
Baroness Hayman: The agency that we are considering under the Bill will, like all government departments, be obliged to act reasonably and in accordance with the specific criteria set out in Clause 23, with costs and benefits, in reaching decisions or
I quite understand the concern that those affected by the agency's actions should have access to an adequate system of redress. As we discussed earlier, the agency will certainly be transparent and open in its operation, and I believe that that should apply particularly to how it deals with complaints and representations about its decisions.
I agree that the agency should have procedures for dealing with complaints about the way in which it works, not only about the decisions that it has reached. I assure your Lordships that the agency will establish and publicise a procedure for dealing with such complaints, which would in any case be required by the service first principles of government. There will be in that sense a separate mechanism for people who are aggrieved about the workings of the agency to take up their complaints.
We do not believe, however, that we need to provide a separate new appeals mechanism in the Bill. There will be various routes to challenge the agency's decisions and actions, depending on the circumstances. The coverage of the procedures is fairly comprehensive, although the right route depends on exactly what the complaint or appeal relates to. That is why it is important that there is a complaints procedure for the whole agency which can, as necessary, refer people to the appropriate mechanism.
The agency's own complaints procedure is of course one of those mechanisms, but complaints may be made directly to ministers or they may be made via Members of Parliament. Complaints can also be made, if necessary, to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Appeals may be made to a Crown Court against the judgment given by a magistrates' court in a prosecution relating to regulations made under the Food Safety Act 1990.
There are also appeals under Section 37 of the Food Safety Act 1990 against the action of enforcement authorities. This would include local authorities and might cover matters such as appeals against food safety improvement notices and appeals against decisions to remove prohibition orders and notices. There is judicial review of any decision taken by the agency, and there could also be defamation action.
This illustrates that the range of fields and legislation with which the agency is dealing is varied, and we must recognise that there may be separate and distinct appeals procedures already in existence. The spirit of those moving the amendments is that there should be an over-arching channel by which complaints can be made as well as the appropriate mechanism for formal appeal, and I can assure Members of the Committee that that will take place.
The noble Lord, Lord Luke, in speaking to Amendment No. 111, referred to the Meat Hygiene Service and to the enforcement of dairy hygiene legislation for which the agency will resume policy responsibility.
Lord Clement-Jones: Perhaps I might ask the Minister another question, which may be unfair. In terms of the local authority powers which can be taken over by the agency, is an appeal through the magistrates' courts equally available against the agency's enforcement actions?
Baroness Hayman: As I understand it, there is an appeal when a local authority acts as a food authority in those areas. In the limited circumstances when we envisage the food standards agency would take over the role and act as a food authority, as I understand it, it would be subject to the same appeals procedure as if a local authority were taking that action. I should like to verify that, if the noble Lord will allow me, and write to him if I am incorrect.
The reason I misunderstood the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, was not only the technical issue, but because of the practical issue regarding the concern about the operation of the Meat Hygiene Service and the way in which appeals, reviews and complaints against that body could be undertaken. In fact, the chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service recently established a working group to review the existing service's appeal procedures in co-operation with representatives of the meat industry. I understand that there have been good discussions at initial meetings of how the procedures might be improved.
I pay tribute to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in her absence because she has been assiduous in following up this issue; in discussing how the Meat Hygiene Service's internal appeals procedure could be made more transparent and give reassurance to those who use it. On that basis, I would suggest that whatever the outcome of the exercises which are taking place to look at the MHS's internal appeals procedure, the critical point is that the appeals procedure laid down in Sections 37 and 39 of the 1990 Act already applies to the key elements of the enforcement of meat hygiene legislation. That power is also available to Ministers to extend that to licensing as appropriate. It
I hope too that by describing the other avenues that are open in specific circumstances, I have illustrated that it would not be sensible to set up one single separate appeals process for all the varied functions and responsibilities. There are quite technical differences, as we discovered, between food authorities and enforcement authorities as suggested by these amendments.
Lord Clement-Jones: Perhaps I may quickly make a point before the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, responds. The Minister has made some very valuable points here in terms of unpicking some of the elements. From my point of view, however, it would be helpful if she could expand on that, perhaps in correspondence. Particularly in the exercise of the direct enforcement powers, there seems to be a great deal of uncertainty and worry about the state of the appeals system. In fact, the Minister has clearly set out that in many of those areas the agency is treated as if it were a local authority, or the meat hygiene service and so on. It steps into the relevant shoes and those provisions apply. It would be useful if the Minister were able to elucidate on that. Clearly, it would be marvellous if she were able also to talk about what form of complaints system is envisaged; what degree of independence it would have from the agency and so on. We are probably too early in the process for that but it would be helpful if we could have clarification of some of the more legal aspects, perhaps by way of correspondence.
Baroness Byford: I thank the noble Lord for that interjection. It very much follows on from our concern that the appeals procedure should be totally separate--and seen to be so--from the agency itself. That is why our amendment suggests that the appeal should be upheld by the Secretary of State at a hand's distance away.
My next amendment, sadly for everybody, goes on to deal in a little more detail with the Meat Hygiene Service. It would seem more sensible, therefore--in view of the lateness of the hour and not because I would not wish to speak more to this--if at this stage I withdraw the amendment but say that we shall deal with it in more detail at Report Stage. Any further dialogue between us in relation to that may be extremely helpful.
Viscount Thurso: It may be helpful if the volume were turned down on the monitor so that it stops sounding in the middle of noble Lords' speeches. It is rather off-putting and is just a simple matter of turning down the volume.