European Food Authority: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:41 pm on 23rd June 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health) 12:41 pm, 23rd June 2000

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the Select Committee on the European Union on holding their inquiry into the European food authority and for bringing forward this debate on their report today. As the noble Earl suggested, it is the first report of the reconstituted Sub-Committee D; I hope that it will be the first of many. I wish to pay tribute to the noble Earl and to the members of the committee, many of whom have spoken today. We have had a high quality debate.

The issues in relation to food safety and public confidence go very wide, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, suggested. I am glad to pay tribute to him and the work that his committee undertook in relation to antibiotic resistance. That is a good reflection of the influence your Lordships' committees are having in these very important areas.

There is no doubt that today's debate and the committee's report will be important contributions to the overall debate and great aids to the Government in their deliberations once the proposals are issued by the Commission in October. They are also very helpful in relation to the need to improve public confidence in food issues.

I listened with great care to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, as he recounted to us the enormous appetite of people living in this country. When he referred to 60 billion meals a year, I began to feel rather hungry. I am sure that other noble Lords felt the same. As a health Minister, I became rather alarmed when I realised that the "Healthier Nation" targets in relation to people's weight may prove to be more challenging than they are already.

I understand the substantive point, made by the noble Lord, that he wishes to avoid, if you like, another set of arrangements which may be piled on to current arrangements. However, notwithstanding the happy and healthy appetites of the British people, there is concern, too, among the public in relation to food safety issues, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, pointed out. We have to address those issues of public confidence.

There is no doubt that the committee's report cogently addresses the multiplicity of views heard in evidence and a wide range of issues. The Government's response to the report will be available shortly after this debate.

As the committee appreciated, and as has been demonstrated in this debate, the Commission's proposal for a European food authority, as set out in its White Paper on food safety, raises a good many questions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, the present proposals, while addressing the fundamentals, are silent on much of the detail. It will be interesting to see how the Commission reconciles the many different comments it will receive from different countries. Certainly, the Government have submitted their owns views to the Commission, which, in advance of greater detail, set out our main suggestions and points of concern. These are very similar to many of the issues raised by the committee.

Before commenting on the authority, I should touch briefly on the action plan set out in the White Paper. It is certainly an ambitious programme, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said--perhaps even over-ambitious. The Commission recognises this. But the document contains a number of measures on which the Government have been seeking action for some time--such as the consolidation of hygiene directives and a radical review of food labelling rules--and, in this light, we await more detailed individual proposals being brought forward by the Commission.

In due deference to the suspicions of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I should point out that we do not regard all of the Commission's proposals as of equal weight. While our overriding concern has to be the protection of public health, we shall also be scrutinising each individual proposal against the criteria of need and proportionality. If I am to take one theme alone away from the debate today, it is the issue of proportionality.

Of course, the proposed establishment of an authority has its critics--indeed, if I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, was an eloquent critic--but, apart from the principle, some of those criticisms may be due to a lack of detail, a matter to which I have already referred. Certainly, it is clear that there are some who consider that the proposals do not go far enough; others consider that there may not be a need at all for a European body, suggesting that the rationalisation of existing Commission services might produce better results. However, it is clear that there is an urgent need to review structures which have evolved over the past 30 years. I accept the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in relation to consistency.

Given the importance of protecting consumer health, it is important to welcome the proposal to draw existing responsibilities together in a new, independent EU body. I stress the words "existing responsibilities". In the light of what I and other noble Lords have said, we do not expect that this will involve creating any new competencies or transferring responsibility away from member states.

I also accept that such a body must be open and transparent and that it must provide the best scientific advice possible, utilising all available expertise, but I share the concerns that it must be careful not to duplicate work performed effectively elsewhere. It is particularly important that such advice is not based solely on in-house science--a point emphasised in the report. We share the committee's anxiety on that. I shall return to that issue in a moment.

There are number of unresolved questions about the proposed authority which are reflected in the committee's report and the Government's response, and I should like to reflect on the main issues.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, referred to the relationship between risk management, risk assessment and risk communication. In its report, the committee accepted that, for the present, there should be a clear division of responsibility, with risk assessment going to the authority and risk management staying with the Commission, along with regulation and enforcement. It also recognised that there should be a close two-way interaction across the divide. This point was among those of particular concern to the Government, as reflected in their response to the Commission.

We agree that legislation should remain with the Council and with the European Parliament. The implied division of the official/technical level functions of risk assessment and risk management between the authority and the Commission is, however, felt by the UK to be the least satisfactory aspect of the Commission's proposals. The Government believe that coherence in the processes of risk analysis is vitally important if policy decisions are to be properly based on sound science and public confidence is to be maintained and enhanced.

I accept that part of the difficulties may have stemmed from different understandings of the terminology. What is absolutely clear is that we must avoid compartmentalisation of the different parts of the task of risk analysis. That could result in risk managers proposing legislation or other controls not firmly based on science or, on the other side of the coin, risk assessors, in giving their opinion, taking no account of the solutions risk managers can practically and effectively apply to safeguard consumer health.

At the end of the day, risk management, risk assessment and risk communication are not individual "steps" but are part of a complex interactive risk analysis process. Certainly, as was pointed out so clearly by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the separation of these activities between different EU bodies will require effective co-ordination mechanisms to ensure that policy decisions are based on sound science. Therefore, as the committee identified, there needs to be close and effective communication between the authority and the Commission.

The authority should at the very least be able--or perhaps even be required--to identify practical solutions and options and make recommendations on courses of action. We have suggested that the Commission should then be obliged to respond in each case by explaining what action it proposes to take. It seems that the Commission is receptive to these ideas and we hope that that will to some extent be reflected in its forthcoming proposals.

Perhaps I may turn to the question of the provision of scientific advice. Several important points have been made by noble Lords. I was interested in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who, from her experience in business, spoke of the credibility of what is proposed depending on scientific advice being of the highest quality. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, also raised a number of important issues, including the need for a high quality scientific secretariat.

The Government firmly believe that the proposed European food authority must be able to draw on and represent the best scientific advice available. An existing structure of scientific committees is of course in place; those committees report to the Commission. It is envisaged that they will fall within the remit of the authority. We accept that it is essential that they are well structured and adequately supported by a strong secretariat which can properly frame requests for advice so that the scientific considerations can fully inform and--dare I say?--be understood by policy makers. I also agree with the point made about effective communication with the public. Such scientific advice has to be made available to the wider public in a clear and comprehensible way.

The committee has commented on the authority's remit. Its view matches the UK's response in that we would not wish this to be too widely extended. We see a role for the authority in labelling issues, acting as a source of scientific data on nutrition matters and encouraging co-operation on nutrition issues between member states. But we do not believe that the remit should extend to healthy eating advice or to responsibilities for subjects such as environmental protection or animal welfare. We think that those matters should be dealt with as policy areas in their own right. Those aspects are covered in more detail in the response to the Commission.

I now turn to another important matter; namely, the relationship of the proposed authority with the UK's Food Standards Agency. Again, I share the consensus apparent in our debate today. The European authority must add value to the work of other authorities, but it must not duplicate the work of those other authorities. Arising from that are questions of how it would relate with the UK Food Standards Agency; whether the authority would be able to overrule national agencies; and, indeed, whether it would ultimately make our own agency redundant. I should like to respond very firmly to that final point. The establishment of an authority will not make our own agency redundant.

There is a substantive difference in the proposed remit of the authority and that of the UK's agency. The Food Standards Agency encompasses risk assessment, risk management and risk communication on all food safety issues. It deals with compositional and quality standards, animal feed, nutrition and diet advice, food authenticity, surveillance and enforcement. That is a much wider scope of responsibilities than those proposed for the European authority.

Perhaps the best way to view the role of the European food authority is that essentially it will improve the arrangements for co-ordinating food safety at the European level, with individual member states retaining responsibility for implementing the necessary measures and controls within their own territories. In terms of the authority's ability to overrule the opinions of national agencies and scientific experts, as the committee is already aware, no such formal rule has been proposed. We see the role of the authority as one of aiding consensus on difficult or divisive issues rather than acting as an arbiter or pressing its own views on member states.

While the relationship between the proposed authority and agencies in member states is not clearly defined in the Commission's communication, we do expect any recommendations from the authority to be based on full consultation and careful analysis of the best available scientific information. It is obvious, given that scientific opinion can rarely be stated with 100 per cent confidence, that there will be scope for disagreement or differences of opinion. We should not run away from that. However, with active collaboration with agencies and authorities in member states, the scope for such instances might be reduced.

In this regard, the Commission has proposed some form of network between the authority and national authorities. That is eminently sensible in order to tap the wealth of expertise and resources resident in member states, as well--I return to the point I made earlier--as avoiding duplication of effort.

Many other issues were raised in the debate. I apologise to noble Lords if I am unable to respond to every one, but a number of points were made to which I should like to refer. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, asked what model should be adopted by the European food authority. He suggested that the Commission should look at successful models already in existence. We share that view and we understand that the Commission has expressed an interest in the UK's own Food Standards Agency.

Several questions were raised as regards transparency and openness. I have already said that I very much share the opinion that, if the authority is to sustain credibility within the Community and in this country, openness in relation to its functions and communications to the public as well as to agencies in member states is absolutely vital. It is a matter on which we shall keep a close eye.

The Commission is currently considering all the comments that have been received on the authority from member states and other interested parties. It is also awaiting the European Parliament's opinion which, I understand, is not expected until October. We therefore expect to see a detailed proposal from the Commission around the end of October, on which detailed and more focused discussion can take place. We await the Commission's proposals with interest. There is no question that the handling of food safety issues is of great importance to this Government. It was for that very reason that we established the Food Standards Agency.

This has been an interesting and informed debate. We shall take into consideration all the points that have been raised, as well as the substantive points raised in the committee's report.

I conclude by once again thanking the noble Earl and the sub-committee members for the splendid job that they undertook in producing not only a very informative report but one that can be clearly understood in an area which is often not necessarily so clear.