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Re-Allocation Of Responsibility For The Enforcement Of Certain Provisions Of The Food And Drugs (Scotland) Act 1956

Volume 24: debated on Monday 17 May 1982

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I beg to move amendment No. 56, in page 16, line 1, leave out from beginning to end of line 10 on page 17.

With this we can also discuss amendment No. 57, in page 16, line 1, leave out from beginning to 'after' in line 14 and insert

`In the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act 1956'.

The amendment seeks to remove clause 19 from the Bill. It is put forward because of the representations I and other hon. Members have received from many representatives in the food and consumer industries. The Scottish Consumer Council, which represents general consumers, has made it clear that it has no direct interest in which group of local authority officers enforce the legislation on food standards, composition and labelling. Its overriding concern is that this legislation and other consumer protection legislation should be enforced in the most effective and efficient way.

During the period in which the clause was debated in Committee there was no evidence of discontent from consumers or traders with the present arrangements. The debate brought out the fact that the enforcement of the legislation of food standards, labelling and composition is more in line with trading standard matters than it is with public health. Scottish trading standards officers have a great deal of experience and expertise in those fields and the work fits in well with the enforcement of other consumer protection measures, such as weights and measures and trade descriptions.

It was also clear in Committee, and from the evidence available, that the trading standards departments generally have a higher sampling rate than the environmental health departments. That is sufficient proof that the trading standards departments, which are under the control of the regional councils, are in a position to enforce that part of the legislation more diligently.

I am sure that the House accepts that it is important for the consumer and the trader that there should be uniform interpretation of the legislation. If the amendment is not acceptable to the Government the district authorities and their officers will use their best endeavors to co-ordinate and ensure uniformity of enforcement. The strength of the argument put forward by the many organisations that are opposed to this clause illustrates their concern that it will be improbable that the 56 authorities will be able to ensure the consistency of performance as well as the present 12 regional authorities.

The ratepayers who have to foot the bill for increased costs if the clause is included in the Bill are concerned that the transfer of those functions from the regional to the district authorities will not lead to any reduction of staff at regional level.

The addition of those functions to the work load of the environmental health officers can lead only to an increase in staff and local authority expenditure. Not only is that contrary to Government's policy but it will place greater strain upon the district authorities if they are to keep within the guidelines that the Secretary of State for Scotland sets year by year.

The clause has been put into the Bill on the basis of the statements made in chapter 13 of the Stodart report. In paragraph 157 it was quite clearly stated that those who were concerned with food standards, labelling and composition were seen as being closely connected with consumer protection and the best suited for regional councils. In later paragraphs the report sets outs its reasons for recommending the changes as proposed in clause No. 19. Throughout the paragraphs an element of doubt quite frequently arises about the demarcation lines between regional and district authorities and there is mention of how often they intertwine with enforcement of legislation under the Food and Drugs Acts.

It is also worth drawing the attention of the House to the comments of the Society of Scottish Directors of Consumer Protection, which pointed out that the EEC is harmonising legislation on trading standards and practices, which requires a uniform approach and interpretation that is more easily met by the present number of regional and island authorities in Scotland.

Paragraph 172 of the Stodart report accepts that consumer protection would be more costly to operate at district level than at regional level and the report recommended that it should be left with regions and island councils. If such an important service is seen to be more cost effective at regional level, surely that makes the case that there should be no change in the operation of food standards, labelling and composition by the regional and islands councils, the staff of which aready carry out those functions. If no change is made, there will be no increase in staff and no increased cost to the ratepayers.

It is right that the House should be aware of the comments of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration in a letter to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on 8 April 1982, which set out specific reasons for the removal of the clause from the Bill. The institute said that the weight of the argument in Committee strongly favoured the deletion of the clause, It still supports that view, as does the Food Manufacturers Federation, which has written to me of its deep concern that, despite the Under-Secretary's assurances on Committee that he would have a serious look at the clause, nothing has altered.

There is no real balance in the clause, as was brought out in Committee and accepted by the Under-Secretary when he said that he would look carefully at the points made by hon. Members and would consider any new points from the many organisations that were opposed to the clause and made representations to him after considering the Committee's proceedings. However, despite having been sent further representations from those organisations, the Minister has seen fit to bring the clause to the House as it stood in Committee.

Representations were made by the Scottish Institute of Environmental Health in a letter dated 26 March 1982, which was circulated to right hon. and hon. Members. The letter related to a meeting of the institute's education and general purposes committee, which considered our Committee's deliberations on the clause. The institute said that the clause mainly transfers to district authorities the responsibility for the enforcement of sections, 1, 2, 6 and 18 of the 1956 Act. The letter does not say that the clause is based on the 1973 Act, which made regional councils responsible for the provisions in the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act 1956, which dealt with food standards, labelling and composition.

It was also wrong of the institute to suggest that environmental health departments had administered 1 hose functions for 19 years. Cities and large boroughs may have carried out some of the functions before the reorganisation of local government, but they were but a few of the functions that were divided up between regional and district councils on the reorganisation of local government. The institute cannot claim that the clause is a reversion to a former practice.

I welcome the comment in the institute's letter that soundings that it has taken from directors of environmental health in Scotland suggest that there will be no increase in staff levels, and I hope that the Minister will beat that in mind when he starts to receive complaints from district authorities that they are understaffed because of the addition of the functions that will be delegated to them if the clause is passed. The institute naturally has a vested interest in the clause. I do not blame it for that. If my amendment does not receive the approval of the House, I shall watch with interest how the district authorities carry out the additional functions. I wish to make it quite clear that the amendment is not a personal attack on the districts or the institute. I am certain that the institute is reasonable enough to accept that a Member of Parliament must make up his mind and express an opinion.

I am certain that the institute is reasonable enough to accept that a Member of Parliament must make a stand on an issue if he believes that what is proposed is detrimental to his constituents. I am proud to be an honorary vice-president of the institute. I am sure that it appreciates that I have not tabled my amendment without the deepest thought and consideration,

1.15 am

I oppose the clause because it is badly drafted, it is a waste of the expertise of the regional offices, the functions of which will be dramatically reduced, and it has not had the consideration of the Minister which it should have had after the many representations that were made against it by all the organisations, all with the best interests of ratepayers, consumers and traders as their first priority. I appeal to the Minister to accept the amendment and to remove the clause.

I support the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie). He made a most helpful and sensible speech. It will command widespread support from those who take an interest in consumer protection in Scotland. He has deployed the arguments with force and clarity, although not brevity. I merely wish to show that if he chooses to divide the House on the issue, he will have my full support.

I, too, was impressed by the efforts of the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie). He made a similarly trenchant speech in Committee. Unfortunately, on that occasion he rather spoiled it by voting with the Ministers.

I knew there was a touch of bathos at the end.

This is an important matter. We have been lobbied extremely heavily. I do not deplore lobbying. It shows a genuine strength of feeling. There is no doubt that many organisations believe that the Government have the balance wrong. There is no way in which we can achieve a satisfactory split. There is an overlap and those who accept the recommendation that we should try to have neat boundaries between regions and districts will be disappointed. The regions' consumer protection interests are set against the environmental health responsibilities of the district councils. Whichever way we go, there will be an overlap in relation to the food and drugs legislation.

I have given much thought to the matter. The balance of convenience and argument is in favour of removing clause 19, and leaving the position as it is, with food standards, composition and labelling remaining the responsibility of the consumer protection departments of the regional authorities. I do not want to go into detail about why recommendation 46 of Stodart was wrong, but it would be unfortunate if the number of enforcement authorities increased from about one dozen to a little more than 60. There would be diseconomies of scale or fragmentation would bring inefficiencies.

There would be difficulties for the retail trade, which would have to consult two authorities instead of only one. There would be clear disadvantages in terms of local authority co-ordination. I know that a formidable number of bodies interested in this have made representations to that effect, including the Retail Consortium, the CBI, the Food and Drinks Industries Council, the Food Manufacturers Federation and the Scottish Consumer Association as well as the obvious consumer protection interests in the regional councils.

I recognise that it is a difficult matter of balance and judgment, but I believe that the Government should rethink this matter. It was in that spirit that the amendments were tabled. Amendments Nos. 56 and 57 as drafted might well leave unpleasant ends and jagged edges in the Bill and might leave the public analyst in a strange state of limbo. I am prepared to accept that there may be substantial technical difficulties with both amendments, but the Bill will no doubt be debated again when it reaches another place.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister can give some indication beyond a rather formal, pat cliché about listening to what has been said and giving some kind of consideration to it at some indefinite time in some indefinite way. Perhaps he will say a little more to suggest that he is prepared to look again at this with a view to changing his mind, as I believe that the great weight of the argument demands.

As the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) has said, the clause implements the recommendations of the Stodart Committee that the powers of the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act 1956 dealing with

"food standards, composition and labelling"
should be transferred from the regional councils to the district councils. The report states in paragraph 158 that

"Many district councils in their evidence have represented that this
—the overlap—
"is an unsatisfactory state of affairs."
The issue is finely balanced. After a long and informed debate, the Standing Committee decided that the clause should stand. Environmental health officers in the district council are already heavily engaged in important matters of food law—for example, imported food regulations and hygiene regulations—and have a co-ordinated approach on those matters. I see no reason to doubt that they would do the same if they were given the powers proposed in the clause.

The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart), and I undertook to consider new evidence presented before this stage of the Bill. He and I met the CBI, and my officials met the Scottish Consumers Council, the Retail Consortium and the Food Manufacturers Federation. Their worries, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie), are very genuine and we have promised to monitor closely the way in which the matter develops in the early periods of the changeover, but they did not convince us that their apprehensions about the effect on the industry were justified.

The main thrust of the 1956 Act is to ensure that food is safe to eat. None of the region's statutory duties under other Acts seems to have the same substantial health overtones as the duties under the 1956 Act. They are for the most part concerned with the protecting the public from fraud, deception, short weight and the like. The Stodart committee clearly felt that the health implications of the regions' duties under the 1956 Act set them firmly apart from those other consumer protection duties to the point at which they were more appropriate to an environmental health department, whose officers already deal with unfit food, food hygiene and imported food regulations—in effect, with all aspects other than food standards and labelling. The transfer would restore the position to that prior to reorganisation.

I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East that the directors of environmental health said that, given the work done on food by their departments, they see no substantial staffing implications, and the district councils themselves have made it clear to us that they see no need to increase their staffs.

As I have said, we have considered the matter in some detail. The debate in Committee was lengthy. It was decided that we should stay with the Stodart committee's proposals. I suggest to the House that we do the same tonight and reject the two amendments.

Amendment negatived.