General Food Law (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Krebs and Lord Teverson
Wednesday 6th March 2019

(5 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness on her appointment as the Minister in the Lords for health and social care. I would like to pick up on a point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and to reiterate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I am also a member of the EU Sub-Committee on Energy and the Environment, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. We heard evidence this morning from the Minister for Public Health and Primary Care and from Heather Hancock, the chair of the FSA. The point that I want to pin down here is the one concerning risk management because we have heard contradictory statements over the past six to nine months about who is going to be in charge of risk management after Brexit day. What we learned is that at the moment, the arrangement is that EFSA produces the risk assessment, the risk management decisions are taken by the standing committee, on which the UK is represented by the Food Standards Agency—and on only rare occasions are decisions on risk management escalated to the Council of Ministers.

Heather Hancock has proposed, and indeed has set up an equivalent arrangement for post Brexit, so there will be an equivalent of the standing committee in which the FSA on behalf of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Food Standards Scotland will make the risk management decisions. That is her proposal. On the other hand, we have been told on numerous occasions that Ministers intend to take risk management decisions in relation to food safety and standards, which of course would take us right back to the old days before the FSA was set up when Ministers got themselves in a tangle when confronted with having to make difficult decisions about risk management and they sometimes got them wrong. I will not go into detail, but we are all aware of the mistakes that were made in the 1990s. I would like to get confirmation from the Minister of what Steve Brine told us this morning; namely, that it is his intention—I do not believe I am putting words into his mouth—that risk management decisions on most issues will be delegated to the Food Standards Agency. I would like confirmation that that is indeed the Government’s position because we have heard contradictory points of view.

That was my main point. My only other point is that I picked up this morning some difficulty over who is in charge in ministerial terms between Defra and the Department of Health and Social Care. I would like confirmation that it is indeed health Ministers who are accountable to Parliament, even if they are not making decisions. The current situation is that the FSA through the standing committee makes the decisions, but health Ministers account for them in Parliament if necessary. They are a kind of conduit from the Food Standards Agency to Parliament. I would like to hear confirmation that that will remain the case after Brexit and that responsibility will not somehow be split between Defra and the Department for Health and Social Care.

Lord Teverson Portrait Lord Teverson (LD)
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My Lords, I will make some brief comments. I too welcome the Minister to her position. I also particularly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, coming back to the Opposition Front Bench. I remember great times when he was a Defra Minister and the work he did when the climate change Bill went through.

I will raise two points that relate in many ways to what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. Although these SIs make technical replacements to make sure that the regulations work, which I accept and understand, subject to my noble friend Lady Walmsley’s question about what has been left out, the whole crux of this comes back to how the structures that enforce and flow from these SIs will work. Is the Minister satisfied that the Food Standards Agency will be sufficiently independent of political influence when it comes to important decisions about consumer safety, food safety and agriculture? At a time of major incidents, decisions taken by Ministers can be very difficult in their effect, in particular on the food processing industry and indeed the agriculture industry.

The other area concerns our meeting with the Minister this morning at the sub-committee. I was very impressed by the chair of the FSA, Heather Hancock, and what she has achieved over time to put all the systems and people in place, but I was not convinced by the liaison between Defra and the Department for health over these negotiations. It seemed that on the question of systems the Minister was not entirely in touch—I do not mean this over-critically—with the negotiations in this area that Defra has undertaken. It is that liaison on which I would like some assurance.