The Ministry of Agriculture takes advice on food safety issues from a wide range of advisory committees, most of which are able to advise on scientific issues.
Does the Minister remember that, 12 months ago, the Prime Minister rubbished the Labour party proposal to set up a food standards agency, yet his Department recently announced the setting up of a food safety council? Is that not another U-turn by his discredited Government? Is it not an attempt to steal Labour's clothes? Can he assure us that the council will not be a tame tabby cat for food companies but will instead defend the rights of the consumer?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rubbished Labour's proposals because they were rubbish, and they remain so, in so far as I understand them. The essential difference between our proposals and those that emanate from the Opposition is that, in so far as there is any substance in Labour's proposals, they combine the function of the implementing authority with that of the commentating supervisory authority. Such a body would commentate on that which it had done. We propose to separate those functions, so that Ministers are responsible for the implementation, setting and carrying through of policy, and for explaining it as and when necessary. The council and the adviser have a duty and ability to express in public their view on food safety, including the appropriateness of the policies of the Government of the day. That is by far the most effective way of reassuring the public.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on setting up the food safety committee. Will he now direct his attention to other food committees, and especially to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee? What will he do about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations, which are always happily received. We want to find ways of yet further reinforcing the authority of the specialist advisory committees, and we shall do so in the context of the proposal for the food safety council. We are examining SEAC's terms of reference, and its structure, membership and operation, with special regard to the points that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and I made on March 20.
I am answering the question. I have no reason to be less than candid with the House. I have recognised for some time that the public—this has probably been true for many years—has been rather sceptical about what Ministers and officials say about food safety. I have addressed that problem robustly and vigorously by proposing to set up an independent adviser and an independent council. I look forward to support from the hon. Lady because I am meeting her anxieties.