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House of Lords

Wednesday, 8th January 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St. Albans.

Food Standards Agency

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to ensure the independence of the Food Standards Agency.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Food Standards Agency was set up as an independent non-ministerial government department, operating at arm's length from Ministers. The Food Standards Act gives the FSA the power to publish information and advice, including advice to Ministers, without needing to seek the agreement of Ministers or the Government.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, a month or so ago, it was widely reported that Mr Michael Meacher was backing the Soil Association, which was calling on the Food Standards Agency to take a more favourable view of organic farming. Since the Soil Association's principles are founded on the absurd and false proposition that synthetic chemicals are bad and that natural chemicals are good, and since its claims that organic food is healthier for people and better for the environment have been consistently rejected, does that not show a bias on Mr Meacher's part in favour of mysticism and against scientific evidence? Since he sought to bring improper pressure to bear on the Food Standards Agency, should he not reconsider his position?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords. I do not believe that we in the Department of Health are particularly qualified to comment on mysticism or other such philosophical matters. The fact is that within Mr Meacher's department, and following on from the Curry report, the department has encouraged an action plan for developing organic food and farming. That is a perfectly proper responsibility of that department.

The remit of the Food Standards Agency concerns food safety and nutritional matters and ensuring that consumers have information on which they can make an informed choice. The view of the chair of the Food Standards Agency is that there is no appreciable proven difference in terms of food safety or nutrition between organic food and conventionally produced food. It would therefore not be appropriate for the FSA to make comments that would favour one over

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the other. These are perfectly amicable and constructive discussions between two different government departments.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, returning to the independence of the agency, does the Minister agree with me that it is the openness of the Food Standards Agency and the core policy of putting the consumer first that have improved the confidence of the nation in food standards? Would he also agree with me that we have set a model for openness, based on the evidence, showing that an independent approach is more effective in handling risks and winning public confidence than is secrecy? That is outlined in the Government's review of the handling of risk. I therefore ask the Minister whether he will endorse the independent position of the agency. In saying that, I declare my interest as a member of the board of the Food Standards Agency.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks with great authority as a member of the board of the Food Standards Agency. She is right; the whole purpose of creating the FSA was to secure independence and public confidence in food safety in this country. I believe that the agency, through its statements, the work that it has undertaken and the robust nature of its leadership, has shown itself well able to display such independence and has therefore enhanced public confidence in food in this country.

Lord Elton: My Lords—

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords—

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords—

Lord Elton: My Lords, I believe that it is our turn.

Noble Lords: Elton!

Lord Elton: My Lords, I am under the impression that it is normal to take turns and that it is our turn.

I do not want to give undue weight to my question; I merely ask whether the Minister thinks that the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, or that of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, were entirely free from the bias and prejudice to which the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, took such exception.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, all noble Lords bring to our debates a high degree of objectivity. I would not discourage that at all.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is there not a great danger of those on either side of the organic food argument shooting from the hip? Also, as promised by the FSA some years ago—virtually since its formation—is it not high time that we had some quality research in that area?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the judgment that the FSA made in relation to safety and the

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nutritional value of organic as opposed to conventional food is based on the evidence available to it. Of course, it will always be appropriate to consider whether research should be undertaken. My understanding is that a workshop was held by the FSA a little time ago to consider the matter. I do not believe that the FSA has yet come to a conclusion. When it does so, no doubt that conclusion will be placed in the public domain.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, is the Minister aware that more than 60 years ago my father wrote a book called Charter for the Soil? It was all about organic farming and was not in the least mystical. Absolutely everything in that book is perfectly relevant today.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as relevant as the questions of the noble Baroness always are.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, whilst one can understand the concerns of people over chemicals in food and the organic arguments point, does the noble Lord agree that the human body is in fact nothing other than a great chemical factory? It ingests chemicals; it creates chemicals; and it disposes of chemicals. What is the fuss about?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I really think that the noble Earl must speak for himself on this matter.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, if the Food Standards Agency is so independent, why will it not answer questions put by Members of either House? When one writes to it with questions, one is referred to the relevant department.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, if the noble Baroness would care to put to me specific instances, of course I shall take that matter up with the chair of the FSA. I must say that of course the FSA answers a great deal of correspondence. I should be very surprised if that was not being handled satisfactorily. But there is also a complaints system through which complaints against the FSA can be taken. But I am very happy to investigate specific causes of complaint.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, in the Minister's answer to the first of my noble friends, he stated that it would not be proper for the FSA to comment on the two situations—organic and sensible. Surely, it is its duty to do so if it has the evidence available.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the point here is that the FSA sees its remit as concerning issues to do with safety and the nutritional value of foods. Its conclusion from the research that it has reviewed is that there is no significant difference in terms of safety and nutritional value between organic food and conventionally produced food. Therefore, the FSA considers that it would be inappropriate to make a value judgment saying that organic food is better than

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conventionally produced food. At the end of the day, the credibility of the FSA depends on its advice being robust and evidence based.

Secondary Schools

2.45 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assessment they have made of the standards in non-grammar schools in local education authority areas where selection for secondary schools takes place.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the department has not undertaken this comparative assessment. However, we are aware of research by others which suggests that at GCSE pupils who attend non-selective schools in selective areas are out-performed by those who had similar key stage 3 results and attend comprehensive schools in non-selective areas. We continue to note any conclusions that are reached.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. As she is aware, for many years the Labour Party and Labour governments have said that selection at 11 years of age is wrong for a number of reasons. Indeed, she made that remark herself not too long ago in the Chamber. One of the main reasons is that often those who are not selected are quite capable of undertaking what we might call the "grammar school course". What happens to those children? Can she confirm that in some areas of the country parental choice is the only criterion of a system that is manifestly unfair? Is it not a serious misjudgment that a child's education and progress should be so handicapped when the Government's frequently stated policy is cast aside?

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