Food Safety Standards and Devolution

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 13th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative 2:30 pm, 13th December 1999

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to the reply by the Baroness Hayman on 21st October that "Because of issues of food safety and food standards, the decision has been taken that it is sensible not to have different regimes in different countries and for us to act in a concerted, United Kingdom fashion" (Official Report, col. 1292), why they granted powers to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to have different regimes concerning food safety and food standards in Scotland and Wales from those in England.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, when it passed the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act in 1998, Parliament decided that responsibility for food safety and standards should be devolved to Scotland and Wales. That means that Scotland and Wales have the competence to make different legislation on those matters if they wish. Equally, they may decide that it is sensible to proceed on a consistent basis, as in the setting up of the Food Standards Agency where it was decided to have one body for England, Scotland and Wales.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, is the Minister aware that that was not the case? What happened was that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly took a decision contrary to that of this Parliament and of Her Majesty's Government. The Government then ran along behind saying that it would be unreasonable to have a different regime in the different parts of the United Kingdom. Why give the powers unless it was intended that they should be used to implement different regimes in different parts of the kingdom?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord refers to the beef on the bone ban. I have examined the slightly inelegant syntax I used in answering the question to which he has drawn attention. I was drawing the analogy with the Food Standards Agency. However, I believe that the noble Lord's basic point is one in which he assumes a difference arising from devolution. In fact, that difference does not exist. It was always the responsibility of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales to take policy decisions in the area of food safety. It was possible to have different legislative regimes before devolution. The noble Lord laughs, but that is true and on occasion it happened. Just because the powers are there does not mean that it will be sensible in every circumstance to exercise them.

Photo of Lord Hughes of Woodside Lord Hughes of Woodside Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, who is normally extremely reasonable and rational, on this occasion is being unreasonable and irrational? It is perfectly possible for the Parliament of Westminster, the Parliament of Scotland and the Assembly of Wales on some occasions to agree to have the same policy but on other occasions to agree to differ, in which case one says simply, "Vive la difference"?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I agree with at least one half of my noble friend's intervention. I certainly accept that it is possible to have the legislative ability to take a different view on matters and it may be absolutely right for a devolved administration to have that ability. Equally, it may be in the interests of consumers and, indeed, producers, as I believe it was in the case of the beef on the bone ban, to take a consistent policy across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Molyneaux of Killead Lord Molyneaux of Killead Crossbench

My Lords, will the noble Baroness clarify the statement in her initial reply that certain powers were devolved if the devolved institutions wanted to use them? Surely, once devolution takes place, there is a clear cut-off of Westminster's power to legislate or to make decisions. The power is either devolved or it is not.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, indeed, the power is either devolved or it is not. The decision whether, for instance, to be part of a food standards agency is within the competence of the devolved authority. I understand that the Northern Ireland Executive has not considered food safety since devolution on 2nd December but that it will do so soon with regard to its own policy on the Food Standards Agency.

Photo of Lord Boardman Lord Boardman Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Baroness mean by that that someone who is acting perfectly legally on this side of the Border can, on crossing the Border, find that the devolved power has made them an illegal person or institution?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, it depends on whether or not the noble Lord is referring to powers devolved since devolution. I draw the analogy which is perhaps most helpful to the House. There is a different regime regarding unpasteurised milk north and south of the Scottish Border. As the Secretary of State for Scotland decided, before devolution it was possible to take a different view about the retail sale of unpasteurised milk north and south of the Border. Indeed, an activity which under certain circumstances is legal in terms of food safety south of the Border is not legal north of the Border. Equally, if the devolved authorities chose to have different legislation on food safety, it would, indeed, be possible for something to be legal in one part of the United Kingdom and not legal in another. It was exactly because of the difficulties that that would impose, I suggest, on the beef industry and for consumers that we took time to see whether we could come to a United Kingdom view on beef on the bone, which I am glad to say we were able to do.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Her Majesty's Government say that issues of food safety and food standards are based on sound scientific advice? If that is so, can she explain what other factors--including political factors--affect different decisions made in different parts of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, with respect to the noble Countess, it is not for me to explain the political thinking that may take place in a devolved authority that decides to take a different view on an issue of food safety. As we all know, scientists are not always unanimous in their advice. Policy makers not only have a responsibility to make their decisions based on scientific advice; they must also have regard to the risks and the risks that it is right for consumers to take when making an informed choice.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as England and Scotland have always had separate laws, the situation described by the noble Lord, Lord Boardman--a matter made illegal on one side of the Border and not on the other--has been true ever since the union of the crowns in 1603 without causing much trouble?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I leave such historical judgments to the noble Earl. He is absolutely right. I was using a specific example on food safety to illustrate that post-devolution there has not been some enormous constitutional innovation. Of course, the point covers a much broader spectrum of legislation.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Conservative

My Lords, is it not absolutely clear from the trouble with the beef on the bone ban that where all three--now all four--governments have a common problem to which there is a common solution, they should adopt that solution?

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, will the Minister state what possible harm could have come from--

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn Attorney General, Law Officers' Department

My Lords, we are into the ninth minute on this Question.