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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: I am sorry if I misrepresented the noble Earl. I still believe that he should look at the debate that we had when I introduced a Bill in this House fairly recently on battery hens, having seen the state of the health of battery hens and,
There also seems to be a theory that we should reduce any idea that the people who are to exercise powers in this area are identified with the industry. A long-term belief held by most people in this country is that, in a democracy, experts should be on tap and not on top. This is particularly true in the case of the experts who owe their livelihoods and careers to the industry in which they work.
It may be said that those who are paid by the industries are capable of being totally unblemished by this when they make their judgments and decisions in bodies created by government legislation. Moving away from the food element, we should look at the history of the tobacco industry, and also at other areas; for example, organophosphates. We have examined that matter in this House fairly often. We have seen where the votes and the influence of those who make these organophosphates and grow tobacco have been used against the well-being of the people of this country and the world.
We definitely need to consult the experts in order to have as much information as possible. However, these are not the people who should actually make the final decisions. It should be entirely transparent how their advice is given and what effect it has.
We particularly welcome on these Benches the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the Co-operative Movement. It is a movement which is also close to our hearts. A great deal of influence from our party is to be found in the roots of the co-operative movement.
Healthy eating and nutrition is something that we wish to encourage as much as possible. Risk communication is something which, as my noble friend, Lord Clement-Jones said, we must understand as much as possible. Apart from anything else, it is not a question of grinding on about it, as some people have said. It is a question of trying to educate people altogether on the subject of risk. I take entirely the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who always has a useful insight into your Lordships' affairs, that there is a difference in the risk between that which we ingest ourselves and that which we meet when we cross the road. Having taken that into account, however, it is not a reason for failing to continue to try to produce an effective risk communication strategy.
This Bill brings to a head a lot of movement which has happened since the Second World War. Those noble Lords who, like me, can remember living through that war will remember the great work that was done by our farmers in feeding the country, and by the Ministry of Food--my noble friend Lord Woolton and others--making certain that we were as well nourished as possible. As a result, at the end of the war we were better nourished across the class structure than we have been ever since. Along with that has come a much
All that is extremely important. From a time soon after the war when the standard of eating in this country, both in private houses and restaurants was abysmal, we have grown into a country which is proud of the food we eat and the food we serve. Much of that comes from regional specialities and upon making certain that the kind of rules which led to the cheese debacle, about which my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones remarked, are defeated in order that we tackle the real issues rather than those that appear on the surface to inspectors.
The more local we can make this, the better. Local government are a good basis for this topic and we must not take too much away from them. It is important that we introduce a food agency that is aware of the necessity for regionalism and specialisation. I say that on a day when there has been the most terrible attack on the Cornish pasty, which should certainly be resisted by the Government with all the force at their command.
I deeply regret that I shall be in America when this Bill goes through its Committee stage. I would have enjoyed coming back to it because there is a great deal that can be discussed and amended at that time. But I leave the work in the capable hands of my noble friends Lord Thurso and Lord Clement-Jones, and as my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones said, I shall probably be back at Report stage anyway.
I wish the Bill well. It is like one of those mazes into which one rolls silver balls. We have to ensure that they do not fall into holes and that they reach the end in good time. There are an awful lot of holes in this Bill into which the silver balls could disappear; there are a great many ways in which the Bill could go wrong. But I commend it to the House and ask that your Lordships do a good job with it so that when I return at Report stage I find something really worthwhile.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I begin by adding my good wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in her new appointment, and by saying how sorry I am to see the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, departing from the Front Bench. He was the first noble Lord with whom I did business when I arrived in the House several years ago. I always found him good company and his advice worth while. I must also declare an interest as a farm owner. However, that does not mean, as your Lordships will find in a moment, that I know a great deal about the food industry as a whole.
In principle, we on these Benches welcome this Bill, but along with many other noble Lords we have a number of serious concerns about its detailed workings. My noble friend Lord Rowallan pointed those out fairly clearly, and despite the Government's consultations, which were very much appreciated, we still have a lot of work to do, especially as the Bill was debated in the other place under the guillotine and the Committee's time was cut short. It is a pity that we are debating this
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I sense that that is not a welcome suggestion. Broadly speaking, the Bill has cross-party support. It is an important piece of legislation and deserves proper scrutiny to ensure that it will do well that which it is designed to do, and no more.
For the agency to succeed, it must win the confidence of both the industry and the public as soon as possible. I was pleased to note the emphasis the Minister put on the appointments process. It is important that the chairman and members appointed should have the widest range of backgrounds and experience in the whole arena of the industry, and be highly respected in the industry and generally for their experience and expertise. The fact that they may have declared interests should not deprive the agency of its expertise. I hope that I do not disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in that regard. I sense that he said something different, but I hope not. The key objective at this stage, for all of us, must be to restore public confidence in the food industry.
The agency's remit clearly needs further clarification. Its boundaries are less than clear. The definition of "food" is clearly set out in the 1999 Food Safety Act and is referred to in this Bill. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parks suggested that a consolidation Bill would be helpful in the short term, and that must be so. This Bill gives the agency a much broader remit than did the 1990 Act and it still needs much clarification.
The main objective of the Bill, as set out in Clause 1 or in more general terms in Clause 27, makes no reference to nutrition. We heard a number of references to nutrition earlier and I was pleased to note that the Minister referred to it in her opening address. It is clearly going to be an integral part of the agency's work. If that is so, when giving advice on nutritional matters the agency must make it very clear that it is not necessarily referring to food safety matters. There is room for confusion in that regard. I should like to discuss in Committee exactly what the agency's role will be in relation to nutrition because that needs clarification.
It is important that there is no confusion and no doubt as to who is ultimately responsible for food safety in this country. It must be the Government, but which Minister? That is where responsibility lies and that is where it must stay. Until this morning I thought it was to be MAFF, but I now understand that it will probably be the Secretary of State for Health. A reading of the Bill does not make that clear, and it must be made clear very quickly.
The agency is going to operate in a very difficult and fragmented environment, due largely to the powers devolved to Scotland and Wales and, we hope, to Northern Ireland. It is to set up advisory committees; it must work with cross-border bodies which are part of the Good Friday Agreement, and of course it will have to work within the framework of Europe. Added to that will be a number of scientific research bodies, in both the public and private sectors, involved in industry.
In Committee we shall be examining these relationships much more closely. The food industry is a very competitive international industry, as my noble friend Lord Rotherwick pointed out. It is also an exporting industry, especially in relation to Northern Ireland. I suggest that it is critical for the agency to be instructed to ensure that the standards it sets, and their enforcement, are consistent across the whole of the UK. That was another point supported by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. Further, it is equally important that those standards are compatible with those of our competitors in Europe and elsewhere.
Although I realise that the agency can have little or no influence over the production methods of food outside these shores, it must have some responsibility for the safety of imported foods and foodstuffs for livestock. Those points were also made by my noble friends Lord Rotherwick and Lord Addison. We shall be looking carefully at the Bill in Committee to ensure that those safeguards are there, or that they will be there, and that the industry is not going to be forced into facing unfair competition from imports.
We have some concern, as has been voiced several times, about the agency's effect on small producers. Its remit must be organised to operate in a balanced and fair way. The openness and transparency of the agency are to be welcomed, but for the industry to participate fully and effectively it must be confident that confidential information will be protected, be it financial, scientific or commercial. That was a further point made by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. Of course, that is excepted when it is clearly against the public interest. It is very important that the agency is instructed to use its discretion in this respect in order to win the confidence of the industry.
As far as accountability goes, we believe that the agency must publish clear benchmarks for achievement for both its own objectives and those which it sets for the industry and the enforcement agencies. We would expect to find those instructions on the face of the Bill or in the schedules.
Like my noble friend Lord Rowallan, I am very concerned about the power-base of the agency and the fact that there is no appeals process. There would appear to be no mechanism for appeal against any decision or action that the agency might take. The agency has very considerable powers and I suggest that it would seem wise to allow for some redress in case of extravagances. I also suggest that it is those powers that would allow it to be effective and to do its job, so I am not suggesting that the powers need to be reduced in any way. What I am suggesting is that the Government should ensure that there are adequate mechanisms to control any perceived excesses. In short, from these Benches we support the Bill and look forward to helping to improve it considerably after the Recess.
Lord Carter: My Lords, in winding up this excellent debate, I am glad to have the opportunity, with other noble Lords, to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Donoughue. As departmental agricultural Whip, I worked with him closely during his two and a half years at MAFF, and always found him an excellent and stimulating colleague. I think there is only one word to describe his performance when answering a question without a brief--"panache". He certainly used to terrify the Government Chief Whip!
I am particularly pleased to be winding up this debate as I was involved as the Opposition agricultural and health spokesman in this House, with Robin Cook as health spokesman and David Clark as the agricultural spokesman in the other place, in devising the Labour Party's original proposal for a food standards agency during the late 1980s. My noble friend Lady Thornton referred to the work of the Co-operative Movement at that time. The Consumers' Association was also involved. As I remember it, the proposals were strenuously resisted by the then Conservative government, so I was extremely glad to hear the welcome given by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to the proposals. We know of course that the mills of government, like the mills of God, grind exceeding slow. I am delighted that all that early work in opposition has come to fruition.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on this Bill and the related issues concerned with the food standards agency. We feel that the Bill represents a major step forward. It shows how the Government are continuing to give public health and the interests of consumers the high priority they deserve. The proposals have from the start been exposed to the fullest scrutiny and comment, despite what some noble Lords have said. We feel that
The agency will be an authoritative new body which can command confidence--a point that was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. It will work at arm's length from Ministers and have powers to deliver on food safety and standards. The painstaking process of consultation, with two years of hard work by Ministers and officials, have laid the ground for these major changes. I have taken careful note of the comments which have been made today and shall respond to them as best I can where time is available. Where time does not allow this, I shall, as always, write to noble Lords.
The subject of nutrition was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rea and by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Glentoran. I can confirm that the agency will have a role to play on nutrition, as set out in the White Paper. The agency will have a key role in ensuring that the public has clearly presented and factual information about the nutrient content of foods and about what makes up a balanced diet. This will help people to make informed choices on what they eat.
The agency will also be able to propose legislation about the nutritional aspects of food, including labelling and healthy nutritional claims. I shall return to that topic later. Health departments will remain responsible for the wider public health agenda; for example, the links between diet and health, which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, when nutritional status is one of several risk factors. They will also advise on nutritional risk factors for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers.
The White Paper, Saving Lives: a Healthier Nation, sets out the Government's new and modern approach to public health. This is based on a three-way partnership between individuals, communities and the Government. By following a healthier diet, individuals can take steps to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and some cancers. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Rea.
The agency will share with health departments the responsibility for defining the health education message on nutritional issues and will take account of food and wider health issues. It will also share responsibility for surveillance of the nutritional status of the population.
We do not think it is necessary to mention nutrition specifically in the Bill. The reason is a good one. The agency's functions are set out in general terms, because if we were to use the term "nutrition" it would have to be defined in some detail. That might prove in future to be too limiting because, as your Lordships will be aware, understanding of nutrition is developing all the time. As a number of speakers have said, nutrition is very much a public health matter, and the Bill makes clear that the agency is concerned with the protection of public health in relation to food.
Turning now to the Meat Hygiene Service, which was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Rowallan, among others, we have recently had a full debate on the issues of performance and
Moreover, I believe that it is right that the agency should retain oversight of both policy and enforcement in relation to meat hygiene. To separate them would be artificial and unnecessary. There is an essential synergy between policy development on meat hygiene and its delivery through the enforcement process. We believe that it is important to maintain important links between the two. Indeed, in this case we would go further and say that it is essential. If we make the MHS responsible to the agency, that is a clear signal that public health must come first. Leaving the MHS under MAFF's control would send a wrong signal to the public about the Government's commitment to removing a perceived conflict of interest between sponsorship and policing of the industry. We certainly learnt our lesson in the BSE crisis.
We propose, in addition, to make robust arrangements to ensure that audit of the MHS is kept separate from its day-to-day operations and that the integrity of the audit process is rigorously upheld. Our present plans are to set up a supervisory board for the MHS, consisting of agency board members and external members. Those undertaking the audit would report directly to the supervisory board.
I turn to food law enforcement, which was also mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Selborne. As my noble friend remarked in her opening speech, we propose to leave that responsibility with local authorities where for decades it has generally been executed effectively. The powers contained in the Bill in relation to enforcement are chiefly concerned with ensuring consistency between local authorities in the application of the law. The agency's role will therefore be one of monitoring, standard-setting and guidance. The greater consistency of enforcement that this is designed to promote should benefit the consumer who wishes to eat a meal with the same degree of confidence on holiday in one town as he does at home in another. It will also help to reassure food businesses that they can compete on an equitable basis.
With regard to the agency and the wider powers relating to enforcement, I have been at pains to set right a misconception. The agency will be able to take over enforcement from a local authority in special cases; for example, where it has either greater breadth or depth of expertise. It will also be able to act as an enforcement authority for certain regulations. However, in both cases that will be done at the direction of Ministers and will represent an exception to the general rule of local control over enforcement.
A number of noble Lords referred to risk. The agency's handling of risk will be a matter for it to consider within the specific framework of its guiding principles as reflected in the Bill. It would, for example, be required, in considering a matter such as beef on the bone, which has aroused a certain amount of interest in
The Bill therefore presents a carefully balanced framework for tackling the complex problem of risk while ensuring that the fundamental duty to protect public health remains at the heart of decision-making. It has been pointed out that every time we take a mouthful of food, we are expressing our confidence in the whole food chain and conducting a sophisticated exercise in risk analysis.
We agree that we need maximum clarity and transparency of communication; but we do not think it will be sensible to try to set out in this Bill a definition of what is safe in an area where there is often uncertainty about the scientific evidence. The Bill states that the agency must take account of the nature and magnitude of the risk and any uncertainties. The Bill also requires that the agency must be open in its decision-making and provide people with information about how its decisions are made.
I was asked about the precautionary principle. As yet, there is no agreed definition of the precautionary principle in relation to food. This is a matter which is being considered in the WHO/FAO Codex Alimentarius Commission. This is a matter on which a great deal of work is going on, together with the whole question of risk analysis. The agency will follow a precautionary approach.
I was asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, about the treatment of grazing crops and risks on the farm. The agency will work closely with the Pesticides Safety Directorate which takes the lead in monitoring the presence of pesticides and residues in food. It will help to plan what surveillance is carried out. If those surveys find that a food safety problem arises as a result of the application, for example, of sprays to food and grazing crops, the powers of the Food Safety Act 1990 will be available to take the necessary action to put matters right.
The agency will also be able to use its powers of observation in Clauses 10 and 11 to investigate and gather information on farms, if necessary. Schedule 5 also extends the 1990 Act's regulation-making powers to production of food sources which also covers inputs in agriculture.
I turn to labelling. I assure all noble Lords who referred to labelling that the agency will have the lead responsibility for labelling. This is covered by its aim of protecting the other interests of consumers in relation to food in Clause 6(1)(a). Labelling is a matter which is harmonised at the European level. The agency will work within EU rules to promote sound labelling rules which will give consumers the information required.
I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, why there is no definition of "food" in the Bill. The definition of "food" is as set out in the Food Safety Act 1990, which is the main piece of legislation in the food safety area, so there was no need to repeat the definition in the Bill.
The question of animal feedingstuffs was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Glentoran. The integrity of animal feeds is important in the food chain, as shown by BSE and the dioxin scare in Belgian feeding. The agency will have responsibility for many feedingstuff matters and for liaising closely with agricultural departments which will cover animal health and disease. Orders made under Clause 30 will provide more modern powers on feeds analogous to those in the Food Safety Act 1990.
The agency will be advised by the new Advisory Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs. I can well remember that a recommendation was given to the previous government that they should set up an advisory committee on animal feedingstuffs. They refused to do so. I am pleased to say that we have now accepted that recommendation.
The noble Lords, Lord-Clement Jones and Lord Selborne, and others, mentioned research. Clause 8 of the Bill concerns the agency's function of keeping itself properly informed in order to carry out its other functions. This covers the requirements to keep abreast of developments, to develop its own scientific understanding by undertaking, commissioning or co-ordinating research, and to gather information.
The agency will inherit the relevant research programme which is currently funded by MAFF and the Department of Health, which is investigating the safety, nutritional value and authenticity of food. More strategic long-term research will remain the responsibility of the BBSRC and similar research-funding organisations. However, it will be essential, as was emphasised by a number of noble Lords, that the agency co-ordinates its research carefully with other funders to avoid any overlap.
The expected research budget (out of the £25 million administered by the agency) is a significant sum. The agency will not be the only body undertaking food research in the UK, but it will have an important role in
A question was asked about charges. The charges which may be levied by the agency are for any facilities or services provided. That is not a backdoor way to charge food businesses. The power is there to allow the agencies to charge for services such as the photocopying of research reports. The agency must have some discretion to charge. Any charges will be made in accordance with general and government guidance. These will be set only to cover the costs of providing a service.
I believe that a number of noble Lords are not entirely clear about the role of the agency in relation to imported food. The agency will have responsibilities in relation to imported food, just as it will in relation to domestically produced food. The Bill does not need to distinguish between the two; it is all food. Inspections of imported food will continue to be carried out by local authorities and port health authorities. The performance of these will be monitored by the agency. The agency must respect European Union and international law in relation to imports. It will not, therefore, be able to ban imports simply because they do not meet higher standards set out at the domestic level. There is a requirement of European law and international law. It will have clear powers to ensure that public health is properly safeguarded, in particular by preventing imports, if necessary, where a clear risk to public health has been identified.
The recent dioxin contamination problem in Belgium was restricted by emergency UK legislation. The agency will also work with the EU Commission to ensure that proper safeguards are being operated by third country businesses exporting to the UK and other member states.
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