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Food Standards Agency

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Food Standards Agency was established to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food, and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food. We believe that the agency has made a good start in meeting those objectives.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is he not as disappointed as I am that nothing has yet been forthcoming from the Food Standards Agency regarding the long-overdue regulations for nutritional labelling in a uniform manner of pre-packed food? Not only has that not come forth; but foodstuffs are still being imported from Europe with no nutritional information whatever, and in some cases without a single word of English on the label.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that we want to see progress made in food labelling to ensure that information is made available to the public so that they can see where the food comes from and what is contained in it. There is

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no disagreement on that point. The Food Standards Agency is very well taken with this task. It has been pressing for amendments in EU labelling rules, and will continue to do so.

Baroness Gale: My Lords, what is the outcome of the review of the Food Standards Agency task force on the burdens of food regulation on small businesses?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as noble Lords will know, small businesses have complained of being excessively afflicted by the burden of regulation. The task force of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, is examining that matter. As regards the Food Standards Agency's review, a task force was established with representation from small businesses. The latter stated that the requirements of food regulation do not of themselves impose a particularly onerous burden on small food businesses, but identified difficulties with aspects of the regulatory regime, particularly in relation to the requirements of the HACCP approach. It also identified problems with consistency of enforcement and access to information on changes in legislation. The FSA will work hard with local authorities to ensure that lessons are learnt, that the HACCP approach is developed in an effective and proportionate manner and that there is consistency of approach among all the local authorities concerned.

The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in so far as food can move freely throughout the European Union it is important for the Food Standards Agency that uniform standards should apply throughout the rest of Europe? Is the Minister satisfied that the proposed European food safety authority will meet the same standards as those of our own agency?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we certainly approve and support the establishment of the European FSA. We hope that its emphasis on risk assessment and on evidence-based information will lead to a consistency of approach throughout the European Union. Clearly, if food safety and the import of food are to be conducted properly within the EU a consistency of approach is important. As regards problems that have arisen with certain imports from other EU countries into this country, the FSA has pursued that matter vigorously with both the EU and the countries concerned.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the FSA is doing enough to communicate with the public about its efforts to improve food safety?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, if the FSA is to be as successful as we wish it to be, it is clearly important that the public are able to access its information and its leaflets and are able to be involved in its policy making. In their response to the Phillips inquiry the Government gave an account of the FSA's activities, including that of question and answer

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sessions with public observers at each meeting of the board. The FSA has also held public stakeholder meetings. Its website is visited by 1,000 visitors a week and its BSE website had 2 million visitors in one year. The Government believe that the FSA has made a good start in engaging with the public, but clearly it needs to build on that because at the end of the day it is a matter of building public confidence in food in this country.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the FSA's survey of public attitudes revealed that health was high on their list of priorities and that safety was not as high as it had expected? Will he therefore encourage the FSA to focus on the diet of schoolchildren and to consider the provision of breakfast facilities to enable children to eat one proper meal, or at least some proper food before the start of the school day?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the survey contained much valuable information and will be published annually. It informs the work of the FSA. As regards providing breakfast for schoolchildren, we are aware that many schoolchildren do not eat properly. We would encourage schools to provide not just bacon and eggs but perhaps more nutritional breakfasts as well.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that contact and consultation between the FSA and specialist NGOs in the field such as the British Nutrition Foundation have been adequate? I believe that my question rather neatly follows the previous two.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I should expect such consultation and communication to take place between the FSA and non-governmental organisations. They are essential stakeholders in the whole matter of food safety and public confidence. I shall certainly encourage the FSA to redouble its efforts in that direction.

Earl Russell: My Lords, is the question--

Noble Lords: Next Question.

The Clerk of the Parliaments: The Earl Russell.

Benefits Agency: Contingency Funds

3.5 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will consider increasing the contingency reserve for the discretionary Social Fund.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, I am glad that I am not answering the previous Question!

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The contingency reserve currently stands at £1 million. It is available on application to provide Benefits Agency districts with additional funding should they be faced with unforeseen expenditure resulting from local crisis or emergency. There have been no applications so far this year but, of course, the level of the contingency reserve is kept under review.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and especially for the assurance that the level is kept under review. Does she agree that attempting to assess need for any particular area in the light of the previous year's information is, in Harold Macmillan's phrase, "like planning a railway journey with last year's Bradshaw"? Does the Minister further agree that the downturn in the world economy has affected areas in very different proportion? The effects of 11th September, the effects of unemployment and the effects of flood damage are unevenly distributed. Would the Minister be in an even better position to respond to that kind of situation if she had a bigger contingency reserve at her disposal?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I entirely take the point that one cannot predict the drawdown on the contingency reserve. However, I hope that I can give the noble Earl the assurances he seeks. The figures of three years ago, for 1998-99, show that of a contingency reserve of half a million pounds, £53,000 was drawn down for Montserrat evacuees and flooding. In the following year, of a contingency reserve of half a million pounds, £363,000 was drawn down for Kosovar evacuees and flooding. We increased the figure, as we thought that the Kosovo problems might increase, to £2 million the following year, but the drawdown was £262,000. Consequently, the figure for this year is £1 million. Never in my history with the department has the drawdown of the contingency fund exceeded about a third of the total moneys. The problem is that if you lock money away in the contingency reserve, it is sterile money and is not available to give out in the form of budgetary grants. However, should unexpected emergencies occur, we can turn to it.

The noble Earl mentioned unemployment. He will know that the main bulk of the Social Fund--some three-quarters of that money--is allocated to budgeting loans which are available only to someone who has been on benefit for at least six months and allows him or her to buy items such as carpets. Therefore, unemployed people will not normally be in that situation.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I too welcome the fact that the level is kept under review, particularly as the prospects of flooding this winter appear to be every bit as bad as last year. However, is not the noble Earl's Question rather too narrow with regard to the Social Fund? The third report of the Social Security Committee of another place states that,

    "the scheme in its present format needs urgent overhaul and an injection of funds".

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However, the Government's response in July was pure "Yes, Minister". Will the Minister go further than that response to the Select Committee's report?

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