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Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Will the Minister say something about the massive power that we are giving the authority to charge fees? What kind of fees will they be, who will determine the size of the fees under article 45, who will determine to whom the fees apply, and to whom can the Government complain if they think that the fees are unfair? Would it not be helpful for us to be given some advice on this new power to levy fees throughout Europe?
Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I understand that member states already have power to charge fees for the analysis of documents and the submission of dossiers. This is not a new power as such, and we shall therefore need a system ensuring that equity and transparency are involved in the charges and the arrangements generally. Such a system will be developed during the process of establishing the authority.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I welcome the debate. As the Minister knows, the Scrutiny Committees in both Houses of Parliament recommended that this was an issue of such importance that a debate on the Floor of the House should be devoted to it. I am pleased that that recommendation has been agreed to, and that we are having this debate today.
In recent years there have been serious problems in the food chain due to BSE, foot and mouth disease, E. coli and dioxin poisoning; there is also a public debate raging about genetically modified foods. The need for a focused and concerted approach to food safety is clear to anyone. It is also abundantly clear that, just as environmental problems do not respect national boundaries, so it is with food safety issues. It is important to have cross-country, cross-border co-operation to ensure the integrity of the food chain and the maintenance of the highest levels of consumer confidence in the food that is consumed.
I fully accept that there is an important role for Britain to play by co-operating in restoring and maintaining high levels of consumer confidence in food safety, but we must not forget that there is a balance to be struck in achieving this. We must resist the temptation that is often prevalent among Governments of all political parties to impose too many layers of bureaucracy in seeking to deal with a problem. That can lead to institutions being given, in effect, a blank cheque, allowing them to be meddlesome, unnecessarily interfering, officious and harsh in the way in which they go about their duties.
The motion on the proposed European food authority is a straightforward one, and I welcome the fact that the Minister's speech fleshed out some of the details of the authority, including how it will operate in practice and the principles behind its establishment. However, a number of issues in the proposals need further clarification in the light of the Government's responses to the House of Lords' report on the subject and the Department of Health's explanatory memorandums signed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and the Minister.
Some areas of concern need to be examined further. If the Minister is unable to respond to some of my questions due to lack of time tonight, I should appreciate it if she would write to me to deal with the points that I have raised. It is important to clear these matters up. I have read the mass of papers made available to us by the Vote Office, and some of the detail has been changed through amendments in the European Parliament and through the Commission, so we need to know exactly what is being proposed at the moment.
The key objectives of the European food authority will be to provide independent scientific advice on food safety and nutrition issues, to identify emerging risks, to operate an extended rapid alert system and to inform the public on all matters within its remit. The key to the success of an effective food authority will be the quality of the scientific advice that it receives. The White Paper published by the Commission states that the organisation is
However, I have a question for the Minister. At the time of the BSE crisis in the mid-1990s, there was considerable conflicting information and seemingly differing scientific evidence. Does the Minister believe that the situation would have been exactly the same if the European food authority had been in place at that time? Because of the unknown nature of BSE when it started to unfold in all its horrors, would we have been in exactly the same position, because there was not enough scientific advice anywhere for us to be able to come up with a straightforward understanding of what exactly was going on in the early stages of that crisis?
Similarly, as the organisation will be the scientific point of reference for the European Union, it logically follows that it will produce advice that will almost certainly need to be acted upon. There needs to be greater clarification of whether the organisation will primarily be a proactive or a reactive body. It is a potential conflict that will have to be resolved at the outset if one wishes to avoid tensions and pressures that will undermine its efficiency and effectiveness.
The organisation's remit has been described as strikingly broad, including food safety, nutrition, plant health, animal health and animal welfare. The Minister referred to that strikingly broad remit, but with any body that has a broad remit, there is a danger that it will lose sight of its main objective. In this case, its main objective is to provide and to help advance food safety.
The National Farmers Union has written to hon. Members in anticipation of the debate. To be fair, the NFU broadly supports the establishment of the EFA, but it has expressed a concern that I think is genuine: the EFA must be focused, have a specific remit and not be diverted by issues that are only vaguely linked to food safety. It has given an example to back that concern: environmental or consumer issues that are not strictly speaking related to food safety. Does the Minister have any view on how
Sir Teddy Taylor: Knowing his strength and determination, I am delighted to see my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, but surely we cannot ask the Minister to make sure that that does not happen. She will have no power to do that, bearing in mind that all the people on the authority must be independent and totally outside the control and direction of any national Government. Surely he should not ask the Minister to do something that she cannot do.
Mr. Burns: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, particularly for his kind and typically generous comments. I also fully understand his genuine concern about the Minister's lack of powers. Perhaps I did not make my plea as clear as it should have been but, given that all the necessary proposals to establish the EFA have not yet been concluded, and given that the Minister, through the Government, still has an opportunity to persuade her ministerial colleagues in the European Parliament and the European Commission to fine-tune any parts of the proposals as necessary, if she agrees with the point that I have just outlined I hope she will use her influence to that effect.
Another area of concern is the harmonisation between member states. The NFU has raised the problem of the variation in quality and safety that third countries can exploit when sending produce into a member state. The produce is often prepared and wrapped as if it were the produce of that member state. Is the Minister in a position to give any clarification or reassurance that the EFA will implement the European rules and directives to ensure a common standard that will harmonise food safety across the EU and put an end to such imbalances. The problem has persisted for far too long and it needs addressing. Another related issue that will be crucial to the success of this authority is surveillance and enforcement.
I understand that surveillance will be conducted through a dual processby member states and in addition by the EFA. There have been examples of poor quality or utter failures in surveillance by certain member states. The most glaring recent example involved Germany's failure in regard to the import of beef with spinal cords. How will the EFA stop or improve those unacceptable situations?
Perhaps surprisingly, enforcement is not part of the remit of the EFA, but rests with the European Commission. I wonder whether that is the most satisfactory or competent arrangement. The other place has recommended that Food and Veterinary Office functions should be brought together with those of the EFA. I wonder whether, on reflection, the Government now think that that might improve enforcement once the authority is up and running.
Unfortunately, there have been far too many examples in recent years of some member states interpreting the rules of the club to their own advantage, rather than correctly. The glaring example is that of the French cocking a snook at the rules over British beef and, so far, getting away with it. It is not satisfactory for the Commission to be the enforcing officer. We need a far more vigorous system in place to ensure that all member states enforce the rules equally so that no one is disadvantaged.
I wonder whether the proposal to split risk management and risk assessment between the EFA and the Commission, unlike in our system, in which both responsibilities reside with the Food Standards Agency, is sensible. When the Government introduced the Food Standards Agency, they clearly believed that the most effective system was to have both functions within the remit of one agency. I assume that they spotted the fundamental difference in the European proposals. I do not know whether they made representations and were unsuccessful, or whether they took their eye off the ball. If it was the former, I am sorry that their influence did not carry the day, because I believe that they were right in what they did here.
Does the Minister feel that splitting the functions could lead to conflict between the authority and the Commission? Not having them under the same umbrella could lead to tensions that could mean that the system does not work as effectively or efficiently as intended.
I want to ask about an issue of great importance to hundreds of thousands of individuals and organisations that is raised in the Minister's explanatory memorandum of 11 October. When her predecessor, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, published her memorandum before the general election, it saidI make no criticism, as it was a reasonable statement at that timethat it was too soon to come up with any realistic figures or suggestions on the extent of the impact of the proposals on British agriculture, commerce and industry.
Since then, the Minister has published another memorandum, in which, because events have moved on, she has been in a better position to give an idea of compliance costs. Annexe A of the Department of Health's partial regulatory impact assessment gives an estimate of the number of businesses that the Government anticipate will be affected by the proposals. The figures are quite significant: it is estimated that 63,000 farmers, 405 farm animal feed producers and approximately 612,000 food business establishments will be affected. However, even as recently as 11 October, the Department of Health was still unable to produce a guesstimate for the compliance costs. The legislation will have a significant impact on the whole agriculture sector and the food industry, and it would be helpful if the Government would
The explanatory memorandum also deals with whistleblowing. The European Parliament's environment committee is trying to come up with some sensible and workable proposals on this issue and it would seem that the Government are sympathetic to the principle that food business operators should not prevent or discourage anyone from co-operating with competent authorities if there is a possible risk to food. I assume that the Government are working with the European Parliament on workable proposals to protect whistleblowers who have information that should be passed to authorities to prevent threats to the food chain and food safety.
As the Minister knows, the House has a considerable interest in the development and improvement of food labelling. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) introduced a private Member's Bill on the subject last year and, in a few weeks' time, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) will introduce his private Member's Bill on food labelling. In the debate on 3 March 2000 on the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbastonthe then Ministerwas not minded to support the legislation because it fell for determination within the European remit, rather than that of our national Government and this House. I am not convinced that that is accurate, but if the EFA is to have a responsibility in all areas of food safety, food labelling is an important issue. Consumers have the right to know certain things about the food that they purchase or consume. Any extension of food labelling should consider the issue of the nutritional value of food. Can the Minister tell us whether in this Parliament we can extend the food labelling proposals? If not, will the new authority be able to do something to afford greater protection and more information to consumers, which they should have as a right?
I have raised a number of issues on which the House needs more information concerning this far-reaching change in the existing regime for ourselves and our European partners in terms of the way in which we seek to protect and defend the integrity of the food chain.The debate is time limited and I fully understand that the Ministerwho is helpfulwill not have time to answer all the points that I raised. If she would write to me on those matters with which she cannot deal in the debate, I would be very grateful.