Food Safety

– in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 30 January 1997.

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Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 4:36, 30 January 1997

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on arrangements for handling food safety.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I are announcing today, together with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Government's intention to create an independent food safety council, whose chairman will be our main adviser on food safety.

The council will advise Ministers on food safety and related matters. Its membership will be drawn from a wide range of fields with an interest in the safety of the food supply. It will include both scientific experts and lay members, including consumers. The council and the food safety adviser will report jointly to my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health, for Scotland and for Wales, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and myself as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Our intention is that the council and the adviser should be free to advise on any matters related to the safety, quality, labelling and authenticity of food. They should also be available as an authoritative source of advice to the general public. The council will make an annual report to Ministers, which will be laid before Parliament. The conclusions of its meetings will be published, as will any other formal reports that it may make to Ministers.

Those arrangements will strengthen the existing network of advisory committees, but will not detract from the role of the individual expert committees. The food safety adviser will work closely with the chief medical officers. Although reporting to Ministers, he or she will not be a civil servant.

In addition, I have today formally appointed the chief medical officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, as adviser to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on public health matters. That formalises arrangements that, in practice, have applied for many years. That appointment took place today. We will be making all the other appointments to which I referred—the council and the chairman—after the general election.

These measures will provide an important strengthening of the arrangements for handling food safety matters in this country. Our proposals will introduce a valuable new element of independent oversight, while retaining the vital principle that food safety must be a matter on which Ministers are directly accountable to the House. The new arrangements will provide for independent advice, publicly given, from a source that the public can trust and will help to assure consumers that they can be confident in the safety and quality of their food. I commend those arrangements to the House.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East

Is the Minister aware that there will be widespread agreement with his quite explicit statement today that the general public have lost confidence in the Government on food safety issues? I remind him that, in the face of arguments from bodies such as the Consumers Association and the Labour party, he and his predecessors persistently argued that the present arrangements were right and that no change was required. Indeed, less than a year ago, the Prime Minister told my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that our calls for change were "public relations nonsense."

However, I put it to the Minister that the new arrangements he is proposing today are inadequate. As far as the official Opposition are concerned, they are no substitute for an open and independent food standards agency with real authority. A food safety adviser and a part-time council will command neither the resources nor the authority to effectively tackle these important issues.

May I put three short questions to the Minister? First, why have the Government changed their minds and decided that the machinery of government in this area now needs to be changed? Why have they accepted that argument? Secondly, what resources will the council and the food safety adviser control to support them in their tasks? Thirdly, can he confirm that the Government do not intend to implement any of these proposals this side of the general election?

Finally, I put it to the Minister that, while public relations and presentation matter in this area, what is really important is the need to effectively tackle the underlying issues—issues such as avoiding the huge BSE-CJD crisis and preventing the recent tragic loss of life from E. coli in central Scotland. Not only are these belated proposals inadequate, but every day it becomes clearer that neither the Minister nor the Government are up to the task of tackling effectively these desperately important food safety issues.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

As I said in my statement, it is our intention to make the appointments, other than that of Sir Kenneth Calman, after the general election.

Let us understand the reasons why we are taking this action. It is perfectly true that the public have become cautious—indeed, sceptical—when Ministers and officials identified with the Departments talk about food safety. There are a variety of reasons for that feeling, and although, in my view, it is quite unfounded, it is a fact, and we have to address facts of that nature. My Department already has access to a range of independent professional advice, but what is important now is to try to set out a set of institutions that make those facts plain and are capable of reassuring the public.

The Labour party's position, as I understand the hon. Gentleman, is to propose an agency; but let us examine what he is talking about. It amounts to this: first, that the agency is to be accountable to Ministers—that is the desire of the House—but, secondly, that it is to be the implementing executive authority. In other words, it would be commenting on policies that it had implemented itself. It would have every reason, therefore, to defend that which it was implementing.

Our proposals are much more imaginative than that, because what we have done is to separate the functions. Ministers remain responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy; they have to explain policy and, when necessary, defend it. The council and the adviser have a different role: they are independent—they are not civil servants—they are free-standing, and they are not responsible for the implementation of policy. They can therefore stand back and, in a public and authoritative way, comment on the general issues and then, if they want to, criticise the implementation of policy as done by Ministers. That is done consciously and intentionally to create a rod for our own back. That is what we intend to do.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Motherwell South

Has the Minister actually read the Pennington report on the E. coli outbreak in my constituency, which was the immediate trigger for this change of front on the part of the Government? Professor Pennington recommended that the outbreak control team should be independent of the health board and of the local authority, and that it should be headed by a person who can make decisions. If that is true of the agency delivering the service in the event of an outbreak, how much more true is it of the advice and recommendations to Ministers in the planning of the process?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

In the first place, the E. coli outbreak is not the trigger for my announcement today. This policy has been in formulation for many months.

One needs to go to the essential reason why we are introducing the proposals; it is to recognise that there is a public scepticism about what Ministers and officials say about food safety. What we want to do is separate the functions so that Ministers remain responsible for policy, its formulation and implementation, and for that they are accountable to the House, which is the proper place for them to be accountable.

At the same time, and separate from that, we are setting up an authoritative, independent and prestigious body which will express views in a public way on the general questions of food safety, and will also, if it so chooses, express views on narrower questions relating to the implementation of policy. By dividing the functions, we have brought about a very high degree of reassurance.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the majority of hon. Members who look at this matter sensibly will accept that it is right and proper that steps should be taken to ensure that public confidence can, at all times, be restored in the way in which the bodies he announced will set out to do? It does little credit to the Opposition when they attempt to turn this into a political slanging match. Will he give an assurance, however, that it is not the intention that the measures announced should be a criticism of the agriculture industry, whose members have striven so hard to try to rectify the problems in the past?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the generous way in which he has received the proposals. The agriculture industry, along with many other interest groups, will be represented on the council, but in the end it will be for the council to determine into which matters it wishes to inquire and what its views are. To that extent, I cannot fetter in any way the council's discretion; nor would I wish to do so. Public reassurance and confidence depends on the independence of the council and the adviser and the regard in which they are held by the public as a whole.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall

The Minister has on several occasions today admitted honestly that the public perceive him his Government colleagues and his scientific advisers to be basically untrustworthy and incredible on matters of food safety; I acknowledge that he recognises that fact. However, given that he is making this announcement in the form of an election promise and not for immediate action, why does he believe that that perception will now be transformed?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

We are all in the business of facing facts, and, after the experience of the past 12 months regarding BSE, it would be idle and foolish for me not to accept that the public do not have the degree of confidence that I would like them to have and which I believe would be justified, when Ministers and officials associated with Departments talk about food safety. They do not, and that is a fact; and we must address that issue.

We have tried to create a separation of powers, a separation of functions, which is reassuring in itself, and we are determined to ensure that the people appointed to the council generally and to the post of adviser are people of great distinction—not civil servants, not beholden to the Government of the day, not beholden to Departments, but distinguished people who carry the authority of their own knowledge and standing among their peers. I believe that that will have a profound effect, for the good, on public confidence.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway , Ryedale

Can my right hon. and learned friend think of anything that might have been done over the last 10 years, had the special adviser already been in post? Is it not a fact that the Government have always sought the very best scientific advice and that that will continue under the new arrangement, but that, if it helps to give the public and the consumer greater reassurance about the safety of British food—which is the best in the world—that is all to the good?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because a range of very important independent advisory committees already exists. The best known is the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, whose chairman. Professor Pattison, is a man of the greatest distinction. We have relied heavily on the advice of those advisory committees, and on SEAC in particular, regarding BSE. However, what we have in mind goes beyond the area covered by the specialist committees, will be more general in its scope and will be a great deal more public, and that is our intention.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing , Moray

I have listened carefully to the Minister. Who will have the final say as to who is appointed to the council? Will it be the fiefdom of Sir Kenneth Calman, a highly regarded individual, or will there be a ministerial input as to who will serve on the council? Who will pay for the council, and what is the estimated budget?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

As I said in my statement, the council will be appointed by my right hon. Friends. A number of my right hon. Friends are appointing Secretaries of State or Ministers for these purposes. Ultimately, the Ministers—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health for example, and myself—will make the appointment, but it is in our interests to appoint people of standing and authority who will command respect.

Few people in the House who know anything about it would criticise the membership of our various advisory sub-committees, such as the Advisory Committee on Microbiological Safety of Food, the Advisory Committee on Novel Food and Processes, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, and so on. I believe that everyone would accept that the membership of those specialist committees is a good one. SEAC is well known to the House, and Professor Pattison is a man of great distinction.

We intend to ensure that the membership of the council is as distinguished as we can make it, because it is in our interests that that should be the case.

Photo of Mr Richard Alexander Mr Richard Alexander , Newark

Does my right hon. and learned friend agree that, if he were to appoint someone with the independence, professionalism and appropriate expertise of successive chief medical officers of health, it would go a long way to reassure consumers and increase confidence? Has not that confidence been eroded in recent years by so-called food experts, who make outrageous statements, which are worked up by the media and are very difficult for him and his colleagues to disprove?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

My hon. Friend makes an important point in the latter part of his question. As to the former part, the status of the chief medical officer is a good analogy. It is not quite the same, but it is very similar to the concept that we have in mind. I believe that most hon. Members would accept that, when the chief medical officer speaks, he speaks with real independence and authority. We are seeking to create someone very similar in connection with food safety.

We are likely to appoint as food safety adviser a scientist or someone from that type of background, rather than a generalist such as a lawyer, an official or even, dare I say it, a former Member of the House.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Does the Minister accept that, in the view of Sir David Carter, the chief medical officer of Scotland, and Professor Pennington, some of the most useful and constructive elements on E. coli came from West Lothian council, represented by Crawford Morgan and Alec Campbell, because they had knowledge of the first major outbreak—the Red House Dairy outbreak? Will the Minister ask whoever is appointed, at a very early stage, to ask West Lothian council to present its detailed and constructive views on E. coli?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

That goes outwith the scope of the statement, but I am sure that the food safety adviser, the chairman of the council, will in due time have his attention drawn to all relevant matters, which might include the point made by the hon. Gentleman; in any event, it might be possible for the hon. Gentleman, if he wins his seat, to put those points to the chairman of the council.

Photo of Mr James Couchman Mr James Couchman , Gillingham

I welcome the appointment of the council. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander), I too am anxious that the scaremongers who have caused huge damage to our food industry over recent years do not talk themselves on to the council. Will my right hon. and learned Friend say precisely how the people serving on the council will be recruited? Will it be by public advertisement and after due consultation?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I draw a slight distinction for these purposes, if I might, between the chairman and the council members. It is likely that, in the case of the chairman of the council, the food safety adviser, we shall advertise publicly, but we may also employ headhunters. For council members, it is very likely that we shall advertise publicly; we may also go through the appropriate channels for suggestions.

We are very anxious that the council, with its chairman, should be seen to be a prestigious, independent body, so we shall seek candidates who command respect.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

Is this the Government's response to the call made earlier this month by the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland for a food safety body that commands the support and confidence of consumers? Cannot the Minister grasp the fact that we do not need just another advisory council? What consumers and every part of the industry require, and what Parliament should demand, is an effective food safety agency with executive power to control the whole issue.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

A moment's reflection will make it plain to the hon. Gentleman that what we are proposing is infinitely better than what he just suggested. I suspect that he is suggesting three things, although he only said two. He wants an agency with executive responsibility. He wants that agency to explain and justify the safety of food, explaining and justifying the actions that have been taken by the agency. It would be fair to say that he would like the agency to be accountable to Ministers.

The problem—or one of the problems—with what the hon. Gentleman suggests is that the agency, on his model, would be responsible, not only for implementing policy, but for justifying and defending it. That does not seem to me to be a very sensible way to proceed, because the agency would have every incentive to justify that which it had done.

We are proposing a separation of functions: the Minister is responsible for the formulation, defence and explanation of policy, but others who are not responsible for the formulation of policy and have no inherent reason to defend it will tell the public their opinion, first as to the generality of the question and, secondly, as to any specific points relating to policy that the council and the adviser might choose.

Photo of Mr Donald Thompson Mr Donald Thompson , Calder Valley

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, whichever party is in power, a strong Ministry of Food and Agriculture is necessary? If it were replaced, as the Labour party suggests, by one Minister of State in the Department of the Environment and one in the Department of Health, our standing in Europe would be further diminished. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the general public, apart from the food fascists, need much reassurance, and that the appointment will reassure the public that much of what we do is the best in Europe, and will identify the necessary adjustments?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Both parts of my hon. Friend's question are very sound. Let me focus on the first part, regarding the status of the Minister of Agriculture. From time to time, the Labour party has suggested downgrading the status of the Minister of Agriculture to that of a Minister of State. That would be a grave error, because the pressures in Europe for the reform of the common agricultural policy are great and will gather speed.

It is vital that the interests of British agriculture are properly represented at the Agriculture Council. All the Ministers at the Agriculture Council are of Cabinet level. If the Opposition argue for the status of the British Minister of Agriculture to be diminished, the interests of British agriculture will be gravely damaged

Photo of Ms Jean Corston Ms Jean Corston , Bristol East

Can the Minister tell the House why it has taken the Government so long to announce the setting up of such a puny and inadequate body in response to concerns that go beyond BSE, E. coli and baby milk, and encompass issues such as Alar in apple juice, salmonella in eggs, organophosphates in root vegetables, listeria in cheese—the list goes on? Does he not understand that a part-time food safety adviser is no substitute for an independent food standards agency to reassure the public, particularly people who are bringing up children and want to do the best for them, and to enforce the rights of consumers to enjoy the best standards of food hygiene and safety?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

The hon. Lady has not thought through the policy that she or those on her Front Bench are trying to put across. Their concept of an agency involves at least two elements: first, that the agency is responsible for implementing food safety policy, and secondly, that the agency is responsible for reassuring the public as to the success of the policy that it itself has introduced and implemented.

That system would not reassure the public. Such an agency would have every incentive, personal and political, to justify the action that it has previously taken. What we are doing is much more dramatic. We are separating the functions, so that the food safety council or the adviser can say publicly to the House or to the public at large that Ministers have got it wrong, if that is the council's considered view.

Photo of Mr Nigel Forman Mr Nigel Forman , Carshalton and Wallington

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that all Conservative Members wish him well with his latest development of policy? It is important that we reassure consumers of food safety and of the value of the product. Can he assure the House that, in arriving at today's announcement, he and his ministerial colleagues and officials carefully considered the example of the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, to see whether any appropriate lessons could be learnt from that structure and approach? Many of my constituents would favour that model.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Yes, indeed, we did look at a number of models, and at the Food and Drug Administration in particular. The FDA is not quite as some people think it is. For example, meat and poultry safety in the United States is the responsibility not of the FDA. but of the Department of Agriculture.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth

Will the Minister reflect on my experience in dealing with his Ministry on a relevant matter? Following unsatisfactory correspondence in 1995, I raised during the March BSE debate the unsatisfactory situation in regard to contaminated and condemned meat. The Ministry seemed to be negligently complacent about the matter, although it may now have begun to realise that a serious problem exists.

My local authority has taken the lead on behalf of several others, and has incurred enormous costs in pursuing the matter in the interests of public health. When the council approached the Department of the Environment the other day for support because of the enormous costs that it has incurred, it received short shrift.

Does the Minister understand that those of us who are aware of the problem will wonder how he can find the resources for yet another quango, and deny them to those who do not need imagination because they are—

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. That is a very long question.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

The hon. Gentleman's comments sound like a criticism of the much more expensive policies for an agency advanced by those on his Front Bench, or a request for additional public spending. On the first part of his question, the fact that he was able to raise the matter with Ministers, and the fact that, under our system, they are accountable demonstrate the good sense of our approach.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Is the Minister aware that the public will take the view that, every time there is a crisis, the Government make up their approach to food safety as they go along? With BSE, E. coli, and even dioxins about eight years ago, some of us called for a separation of duties. The problem with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is that it is linked to the rich farming lobby. Until there is a separation of duties, the public will understand that the Tory party running the Ministry cares only about the rich farmers who line its pockets and vote for it.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

In rather a convoluted way, I think the hon. Gentleman is giving me his support. As I have explained to the House, we are separating the functions in a dramatic way. We are making a division between the function of formulating and carrying through policy, which will be the responsibility of Ministers accountable to the House, and the function of the council, which will be to form views on food safety and related matters, and to communicate them publicly to the country, to Parliament and elsewhere. That division of functions is at the heart of our proposals—and incidentally, is denied by Members on the hon. Gentleman's own Front Bench.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

May I urge a little humility on the Minister when he replies to questions? After all, he has an awful lot to be humble about, in terms of his recent track record. Does he not grasp the fact that no one will believe that any food safety organisation or committee will be genuinely impartial if it must report to a Minister in a producing Department such as his?

Unless the consumer and the producer are kept separate, no one will believe that a Minister such as himself is not primarily concerned with the interests of the producer. Although I do not expect him to be the Minister reporting to the House on appointments, can he tell us what sector of the economy he expects the new chairman to come from? Will the animal welfare organisations be involved? It is the way in which we have been treating animals that has led to so many diseases creeping into the human food chain.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

There is a pleasing irony in the hon. Gentleman urging me to be humble. Nevertheless, I shall take advice whence it comes.

On the broad question, we have every interest in choosing as members of the council independent-minded, prestigious people who speak with real authority. We have every interest, too, in ensuring that the chairman of the council is such a person, so that he or she speaks with real authority when expressing opinions. The chairman and the council will be under a duty to go public with their views. For example, they will make an annual report to Ministers, which will be laid before Parliament, and the conclusions of their meetings and of any formal reports that they may make during the year will be published. Those people will have authority because of their background and experience. They will also wish to be judged well by their peers, and I think that that will greatly enhance the authority of their pronouncements.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. I am prepared to take questions from those hon. Members who are already standing, but perhaps the questions could be shorter and snappier.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice , Pendle

Is this not an entirely fraudulent proposal, given the Government's neglect of food safety enforcement? Is it not a fact that, in 1992, environmental health officers served 22,000 improvement notices, but that in 1995 that figure plummeted to 2,000—barely one tenth of its former level? Next Monday, the House will consider the revenue support grant settlement. Why do the Government propose to cut the other services block that directly affects the resourcing of environmental health departments up and down the country? Let the Minister answer this point—

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. I asked for short and snappy questions. I call Mr. Hogg.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

To be short and snappy: the hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

Has the Minister studied the incident that occurred in the United States in 1989, when 37 people died and 1,500 were disabled after eating a food supplement that had been genetically modified and which contained a toxin previously unknown to science? Why has genetically modified food been mixed with other food in this country so that it cannot be identified?

Although Asda and Iceland have said that they will ban genetically modified food, they cannot deliver on that promise because of the mix-up. Genetically modified food in confectionary form is on sale within the Palace. This experiment with human health is being carried out not for the benefit of consumers, but for the benefit of foreign companies' profits. Will the Minister give an assurance that, in future, consumers may choose between foods that are genetically modified and those that are not, as they cannot do so at present?

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. Questions are getting long again.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I know that there is concern about genetically modified foodstuffs. However, it is a general issue, and I shall not elaborate in the context of this question. The fact that there is much public anxiety about genetically modified foodstuffs underlines the importance of our proposal. The Food Safety Council would be in a position to address precisely that question—together with related questions of labelling and so forth—and to make its views known to the House and to the public at large. That is a very powerful argument as to why we should adopt that policy.