Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am always delighted when the noble Viscount speaks on matters of devolution as practice makes perfect and his expertise and clarity of expression help the House in dealing with some of these issues.

First, I shall discuss the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, on appointments. I reiterate--I believe that this sentiment has been expressed--that the agency's board of members will be established to take decisions collectively, drawing on a broad range of relevant skills and experience. Relevant skills and experience and not ethnicity should be the basis of membership of the committee. Its members will not be appointed to represent any sectoral interests and those who are appointed to give advice and information in relation to issues of devolved interests will be expected to play a full role in other aspects of the agency's work.

I suspect, and fear, that this amendment would give exactly the opposite impression; namely, that the members fell into territorial groupings appointed to represent the four parts of the UK rather than working

28 Oct 1999 : Column 418

together in the United Kingdom interest. However, as the noble Viscount pointed out, we have established that some members will be appointed to advise on issues in the devolved areas in that these parts of the United Kingdom do not fall under the direct control of United Kingdom Ministers. They and the advisory committees they will chair will thus ensure that issues in the devolved regions are taken fully into account when the agency's policy advice is agreed on a UK basis.

The devolved authorities that could have chosen to operate separately under the legislation have chosen deliberately to operate on a UK-wide basis. They need the reassurance of a link between an advisory committee and their Ministers in order to ensure that no gaps arise. That applies equally to individual members and to the advisory committees in areas where legislative competence exists but the relevant bodies have decided not to use it. However, that is not the situation as regards England, which does not have separate legislative competence because we are not in the federal position that the noble Viscount would wish us to be in. Therefore we are discussing a lack of a need for an England-wide body. I shall return to that matter in a moment.

I shall finish dealing with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. There are a number of technical difficulties here as well as the point of principle. If we were strictly to reflect the relative distribution of the UK population, Northern Ireland would be represented by less than one individual. I suspect that the only way to avoid that would be to double the proposed membership of the board. I suggest that that would not make for a workable arrangement.

A further difficulty with the amendment is the uncertainty of what we mean by seeking to reflect the populations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Would that be achieved on the bases of residency, birth or expertise? What would the appropriate authorities do in the case of a person of Scottish birth who headed an English research institute, or vice versa? Or, is it simply intended that each appropriate authority is allowed a representative quota? If that is the case, I believe that we then return to the problem of numbers, which I have already mentioned. I believe the main consideration is that mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor; namely, that we want people appointed to these bodies on the basis of their competence and expertise. We risk straying from the true purpose of the members appointed by the devolved authorities, which is to provide advice and information on behalf of the regional committees while working fully within the framework of the agency's board. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that the interests of England will be adequately reflected in the agency's decisions.

The amendment is both unnecessary and counter-productive. There are precedents for consultation on appointments and clear examples of how people appointed in the past on the recommendation of the relevant Secretary of State--or by the devolved legislatures--can make a contribution to the general

28 Oct 1999 : Column 419

work of the committee. They bring their own expertise, not simply a sectional interest. None of us would wish to see the food standards agency set up on a sectional basis when it reflects the desire of all these administrations to work together on a UK basis.

I shall turn now to Amendments Nos. 6 and 7. We spent some time debating how the agency will operate in the context of devolution. It is widely accepted that it makes good sense for the food standards agency to operate as a United Kingdom body. However, because food safety and standards are devolved matters, special provisions are needed to ensure that the interests of the devolved authorities are respected. The advisory committees are part of those provisions.

I do not accept the argument that matters of special interest to England would be neglected because there would be no advisory committee to argue the case for England with the agency. That argument is misplaced. As I said, the main reason for having advisory committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to provide links between the devolved parts of the United Kingdom and the agency. This is crucial to the agency's ability to be an effective UK body operating in a devolved area. We now have a Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales in operation, and we hope to have a devolved government in Northern Ireland, where powers are in any case transferred. The advisory committees will perform a special role in relation to the devolved administrations and legislatures.

We do not accept that there is any need for a permanent advisory committee for England at present. England falls under the authority of the United Kingdom Government. We do not have a separate parliament for England, which could be used to justify an advisory structure for England, and we do not have a devolved English government.

As has been pointed out, England is a populous and extremely varied country; it is simply too big and diverse for us to take the same kind of approach with England as we have in the devolution settlements for other parts of the United Kingdom. The needs of England continue to be covered by the present organisation of the United Kingdom Government.

The Government have said that we are committed to move to directly elected regional government in England where there is a demand for it. But finding the right solution to that particular dilemma may well take some time. We have built provisions into the Bill for regional committees for England to be set up later if they are needed in response to any developments in Government regional policy. But, again, that would reflect an interface with an authority rather than the representation of a sectional interest. The amendment would remove the option of having regional committees later in favour of a requirement to have an unnecessary and unwieldy England committee now.

It is misleading to suggest that the needs of England will be neglected. I should point out that the vast majority of the agency's staff will be based in England with its headquarters in London. All the existing specialist advisory committees--rather than the

28 Oct 1999 : Column 420

national committees--will be based in England. I suspect that we may be criticised for being too London centric rather than too devolved. We do not see a role for an advisory committee for England at the present time. But we have taken a long-term view and provided powers to set up such committees on an England regional basis if they are needed in the future. We believe that these powers are more useful than the restrictive approach taken in the amendments.

On that basis I hope that we will not try to use this Bill to reopen devolution issues which have been settled. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept what I say and be prepared to withdraw her amendments. Equally, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have supported my amendment. When I spoke on a previous occasion I got into trouble with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, about the origin of who made my shoes. I was not surprised to run into some flak on another subject on this occasion, although I was not expecting to be talking about the worries of territories and federalistic problems. I suppose if I do not talk about territories the noble Viscount will not mention the other "F" word and we will get on fine.

As to ethnicity, my father was born in Scotland, my mother in Somerset and my grandmother came from Ireland. I am very much a UK citizen and I would hate anyone to think that I was trying to raise an ethnicity problem. I was not. I was attempting to address a problem that came out of devolution. The agency could comprise six people--a chairman, a deputy and another four members--who could come from either Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. That would make a very unbalanced board. I accept that the people who are chosen could come from anywhere in the UK, but one would sensibly suggest that the Scottish Parliament would tend to select someone from Scotland to reflect its views and not, say, someone from Cornwall.

I am grateful for the Minister's replies. I will take them away and think deeply on them. On this occasion, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response to Amendments Nos. 6 and 7.

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Turner of Camden): Order!


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page