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Food Hygiene Rating Scheme

Volume 757: debated on Thursday 11 December 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the benefits of the mandatory display on food premises of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme certificate.

My Lords, the food hygiene rating scheme with its distinctive black, green and white certificates was launched in 2010. Indeed, I recall that on 10 December 2010, at the launch in the Bluewater shopping centre, six inches of snow fell while we were inside.

This scheme, which is a partnership between the Food Standards Agency and the local authority, has, on a voluntary basis, been adopted by all local authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, except for one, which I will come to later. This is a remarkable example of a good, well thought-out, cheap idea which benefits both consumers with information and businesses with an incentive to raise standards in an easy way.

There are three things to bear in mind. First, it is not gold-plating; a top 5 score is only “very good”, not “excellent”, and the requirement is fully to comply with legal regulation. Secondly, it is a virtually no-cost scheme. The score is worked out during the normal environmental health officers’ inspection of the food premises, so it is not an add-on. Thirdly, it is about food hygiene rather than the factors used by the Good Food Guide.

With more than 50% of meals taken outside the home, food hygiene in the kitchen is important. There are more than 1 million food-borne illnesses, 20,000 hospitalisations and, sadly, more than 400 deaths. The scheme covers more than retail catering establishments, such as cafes, sandwich bars and restaurants. It includes, for example, school kitchens and the kitchens of care homes. Military kitchens are included, as are the kitchens in the Palace of Westminster. It is an open and transparent scheme because all the information about the hygiene scores is on the FSA and local authority websites, classified by location, so you do not need to be in ignorance. Parents can check the school kitchen score and families can check the hygiene score in granny’s nursing home.

A crucial factor, in addition to the cleanliness and how food is stored, is the record-keeping. I once heard someone say they that had a 3, which is “generally satisfactory”. They said that the hygiene was fine; it was only the paperwork preventing them getting a higher score, as though it did not matter. The paperwork and record-keeping are crucial so there is traceability of materials if there is an illness outbreak.

So the scheme is pro-consumer and improves business performance at almost no cost, but it is not gold-plating or the nanny state. It is a great example for the Cabinet Office of nudge policy. The public can eat where they want, but can choose to discriminate based on reliable, national, standard information. This national, locally operated scheme replaces lots of local schemes which were operating across the nation. A score of 0 to 5 means the same across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding the information on the websites, it is better if potential customers can see the score level before they use an establishment. Noble Lords will have seen many window stickers with a 5, which is very good. They will have seen rather fewer with 3, 2, 1 or 0. I should add that anything less than a 0 means the place is shut down. The low scores mean that urgent action is needed, which is carried out and regularly monitored. The rule of thumb that I have adopted is: if there is no certificate on the window an establishment has less than a 5. I know establishments at home in Ludlow—the food capital of the Midlands—selling fast food, bacon butties, hot dogs, et cetera, scoring a 5 which is proudly on the window display. Next door is a posher restaurant with nothing on the door. The website says that it is a lot less than a 5. That is why it is not displayed. Whenever I have checked, the ones without a sticker are generally less than a 5 score, but not always. Earlier this week—in fact, at 7 am yesterday morning—I did a walkabout in the Victoria Street area. In 20 eating places, I found eight with a 5 score and one with a 4 proudly displayed. That left 11 without any information on the door, so I checked them all on the website. Amazingly, five of them had a 5 score. Three had a 4; one each had a 3, a 2 and a 1 score. One of them without a score, in the new development in Victoria Street, was literally sandwiched between two restaurants which both had a 5. You have guessed it, it had a lot less than a 5 and hence it was not displayed.

Food is a devolved area and the food hygiene rating scheme is an excellent example of partnership in devolution. At present, Wales has to be the safest country in which to eat, because a year ago the Welsh Government introduced legislation for mandatory display. It is early days, but I am informed that compliance on scores has improved: low scorers wanted to improve because they had to display. The Northern Ireland Government have introduced legislation for mandatory display and legislation is going through in Scotland which allows for mandatory display. I want to press the case for England to follow.

I am not alone. One of the strongest supporters of the food hygiene rating scheme is the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham. He saw the benefit to consumers and businesses straightaway and said so in his seminal report to the Prime Minister, Common Sense Common Safety. I shall give two quotations from his report. Page 34 says:

“It is clear that the FSA’s Food Hygiene Rating Scheme will do much to improve existing standards without adding bureaucracy or burdens on business”.

Page 35 recommends:

“Encourage the voluntary display of ratings, but review this after 12 months and, if necessary make display compulsory—particularly for those businesses that fail to achieve a ‘generally satisfactory’ rating”.

The “generally satisfactory” rating is a 3. Indeed, the noble Lord wanted to get local authorities joined up more quickly by legislating. The Food Standards Agency board took the view that if we could get a really good uptake in two to three years, we could achieve the aim more speedily via a voluntary route than by legislation, and that is what has happened.

Anyone can get a 4, which is “good”, or a 5, which is “very good”, as I have seen from dozens of visits when I had the privilege to chair the Food Standards Agency for four years between 2009 and 2013. It is not based on size, poshness, or prices. The score is converted from the regular environmental health officer inspection, as was brilliantly explained by an officer from the Suffolk Coastal local authority when I was there at the launch of the scheme. It is clearly not fair on the good performers that the poor performers can seek to hide the fact. Not everyone checks the website; not everyone is on the web. We need also to ensure that takeaways have to give the score to telephone orders.

MPs and Peers can eat here in the Palace, in one of a dozen restaurants, safe in the knowledge that the kitchens scored 5 in both Houses, although this is not always displayed. They might want to think about constituents having the same right to know. Legislation was drafted a while ago to bring this about. I think Ministers should add it to existing legislation: I do not see why it should not be done on Report on the Deregulation Bill after Christmas—everything else has been put there. However, it will need to be tweaked, if that is the case, to bring on board the only UK local authority which refuses to join.

I remind noble Lords that all 400-plus local authorities in the UK have joined this UK-wide scheme, except Rutland County Council. This leaves Wales as the safest place to eat for consumer information and Rutland as the least safe place to eat, for lack of customer information. Parents in Rutland cannot access the scores of the school kitchens, families cannot access the kitchen scores in residential homes, et cetera. Rutland County Council leaders have been asked about this more than once. I went to visit personally to explain the benefits of the scheme for consumers. They are doing the inspections; this is the point. The inspections are taking place, but not being a member of the scheme, they are not sharing the results with consumers or businesses. Most outlets in most places are good scorers, so why deprive businesses in Rutland of the commercial advantage of showing the scores to potential customers? In fact, insurance companies might want to take a look at the premiums for low scorers, but let us let the public decide.

The cost of mandatory display to the business, as one FSA official put it, is the time it takes to open the envelope received by all food businesses after the environmental health officer’s inspection, walk to the window and put the sticker on display. Why should England wait any longer? We should have English information for English consumers.

My Lords, there are points when you prepare something and then somebody stands up and says it all and slightly better than you were going to say it, so it is an easy task to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—something I have managed to do throughout the time we have been in the House together. Sometimes I did not admit to it but, on this occasion, I am quite prepared to do so.

This is basically about making knowledge public. You have done a test, you have found out what is going on and you let the public see. That is what we are talking about here, as far as I can see. It is possible that I have missed something, but that seems to be the essence of it—making sure that at a glance you can tell what is going on. There is also the issue of letting the public know what the scheme means. I think a bit of effort needs to go into this. If you get a rating of 1, you may not know that is a bad score so possibly a bit of information is required. You need to know that it is 5 you are aiming for, not one, but that is a small quibble that can easily be corrected. You need to make sure that people know at a glance what it means.

The advantage of certificates being on display, as the noble Lord pointed out, is that it shows you have kept your kitchens clean, done your job and shown basic competence and you deserve a pat on the back and a small commercial advantage for that. Consumers have a right to know that, although they may prefer the chilli at the kebab shop down the road, they are playing fast and loose with their digestive systems—so let us let them know. This is not the nanny state; it is merely giving information about work that has been done. There is a very simple and good case for doing that.

Let us look at the wonderful example of Rutland. It is not a big county. I have this image of people wanting a sandwich and taking a short walk or driving for two minutes across the border because they have come to Rutland to enjoy the views but it is not recommended that they buy a sandwich there. It is ridiculous that somebody does not simply let the general public know when the work has been done. If there is another way of doing this easily and cheaply, I look forward to hearing about it. This is about taking information we have and presenting it. We have a scheme that seems to be working well. It is not offending anybody terribly. The overwhelming majority of the country is using it in a form which is easy to interpret. “Devolution can work” seems to be part of the subtext to what the noble Lord was saying. If we can get this going, we will make our lives a little easier and better and reward those who have done things properly. This is not a terribly difficult thing to do or something that will rock the world. It will make this a slightly easier and safer place to go and buy a sandwich at lunchtime. Surely, if we can walk away with that, it is a pretty good day here.

My Lords, I begin by declaring myself as president of the Royal Society for Public Health, which is relevant to this debate. I welcome the debate. I congratulate my noble friend on it and on the excellence of his leadership of the FSA between 2009 and 2013. With the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I had the privilege of taking a Bill through your Lordships’ House which created the FSA as a non-ministerial department, answering to the Department of Health. Noble Lords will recall that the reason this was done was because the BSE outbreak and the way it was handled had led to a loss of confidence in a Minister-led government department being able to give objective advice on food safety. The FSA has done a great job since it was established. It has restored public confidence in official pronouncements in relation to food safety and it must be congratulated on the success of the scheme to which my noble friend referred.

This is an important issue: food hygiene is not a marginal nicety. We know that as a result of food poisoning and so on, many people have a poor time of it. We also know that this is an area which puts unmeasured pressure on our National Health Service, in both primary and secondary care. It is therefore important that we do everything we can to make sure that in these outlets hygiene is of the highest quality.

It is remarkable that, on a voluntary basis, this scheme has been adopted by virtually every local authority in the country except Rutland. I have no doubt the noble Baroness will be able to inform the Committee of what is going on in Rutland, or is her advice that it definitely is not safe to eat there? We should be told. I assume that my noble friend ate in each of the 20 restaurants. He looks pretty good on it.

As the noble Baroness knows, we are debating the Deregulation Bill, which is proving to be of great interest. Mandation in this case would be warranted—as my noble friend said, it would cost virtually nothing—and would be of real advantage to the consumer. It is a pity that, given this wonderful scheme, not all food outlets put out information for the public to see.

Does the noble Baroness agree that the voluntary scheme—and, it is to be hoped, the mandation of it and of public display—is but one aspect of the strategy to improve food hygiene? For example, the Royal Society for Public Health does invaluable work issuing certificates in food hygiene. These are aimed at first-line workers in the food industry. This year, in 11 months, 37,000 qualifications have been issued in food hygiene and food safety in retail and in the catering sector more generally, of which 30,000 were at level 2, essentially to front-line staff.

I hope the noble Baroness accepts that, alongside my noble friend’s helpful suggestion, the work of the Royal Society for Public Health and other organisations in seeking to improve hygiene is an element in the required overall strategy. It will be good to hear from the noble Baroness about the Government’s overall approach to food hygiene alongside her response to my noble friend.

My Lords, I am pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate but I fear there is a serious danger of an outbreak of consensus. At the outset I emphasise that public health protection remains high on the Government’s agenda. Food poisoning continues to be a serious problem despite the excellent work of the Food Standards Agency, which works together with local authorities and the food industry for consumers and food businesses. The benefits of prevention are absolutely clear. Reducing food poisoning requires an all-encompassing approach and those involved at every point in the food chain must play their part. The Government must play their part, too, in helping all these players to take more responsibility to do everything they can to ensure that our food is safe to eat.

The food hygiene rating scheme—sometimes referred to as “scores on the doors”—plays a key part in this and I strongly support this flagship initiative. Telling people about hygiene standards in food outlets in a way that is clear and easy to understand allows them to make better choices and gives them the power to vote with their feet. The transparency that the scheme provides puts those businesses not meeting the grade in the spotlight. For those with the highest standards, it gives them the opportunity to show their consumers that they take food hygiene seriously.

To pick up on one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, about insurance companies and premiums for good scores, they are already starting to offer better premiums for ratings of 3 or more. Perhaps Rutland should be listening to this. The FSA is linking with those scores. With regard to his other point on the critical importance of paperwork, it is not about just paperwork or red tape but ensuring that a food safety management system is in place. As the noble Lord said, if there should be some sort of outbreak you would have an audit trail.

The FSA operates this scheme in partnership with local authorities and I am pleased to report that it is now running in all authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland, and all but one in England. The latest to join, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, launched it this year just in time for the tall ships festival in September. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, had a major hand in securing local authority support when he was at the helm of the FSA’s board. I commend him for this and congratulate him on his success. He asked what sort of work is being undertaken to encourage Rutland County Council to join. I know that he worked really hard on Rutland—he has given us chapter and verse on that. However, the county council there remains concerned that local businesses could be disadvantaged by the scheme and wanted to see what impact it had elsewhere. This evidence as to what has happened elsewhere is available across England and Wales. The FSA now has results from independently conducted research and evaluation work that highlight the benefits that businesses are finding when displaying hygiene ratings, and show significantly improved standards in areas where the scheme is introduced. The FSA will be sending details of these findings to the council.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked whether it is safe to eat in Rutland. The irony is that it is, but nobody knows because they do not put the scores on the doors. I should also reassure the noble Lord that the FSA is continuing to encourage Rutland County Council to join, so that local businesses and residents can benefit.

Four years on from the Bluewater launch at which the noble Lord spoke, I can report that there is information on the FSA website on more than 436,000 businesses—a humungous achievement and a great feat in itself. More importantly, the scheme’s aims and objectives are being realised. It is working. It is driving up hygiene standards. Local authorities are reporting this but there is also hard evidence from independently conducted research. This shows that the scheme has resulted in a significant increase in the proportion of businesses with ratings in the top half of the FHRS scale and in those getting the top score. Importantly, it has also resulted in a significant reduction in those getting a 0 or 1. Businesses are all shifting the right way. This is really good news in terms of reducing consumer risk.

Continued success will increasingly depend on consumer awareness, and the Government recognise the importance of ensuring that ratings information is available at the right time and in the right place. Ratings are all published on the FSA’s website. I can reassure your Lordships, for example, that the eateries in both Houses have all achieved the top rating. Most people make spontaneous choices, however, so having the ratings at the point of choice is particularly important. A restaurant that looks promising from 100 yards away may not look quite so hot when you get to it and look at the scores. Voluntary display at food outlets is still relatively low but the FSA and local authorities are working hard with businesses—from the smallest independents to the largest chains—to highlight the benefits and encourage more of them to put stickers in their windows.

I am confident that this work will help to increase the visibility of the scheme and provide added incentives to businesses to improve, and, more importantly, that people will start to question and draw their own conclusions if they do not see a sticker on display. However, the noble Lord made an important point about making the display compulsory. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that doing so will increase the scheme’s potential to drive up standards and increase public health protection. The FSA has a clear position in favour of doing so. It has worked closely with the Welsh Government to introduce the legislation necessary for this in Wales, and is working on a Bill that is being considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The agency is now gathering evidence to demonstrate the case for similar legislation in England. It is monitoring the impact of the change in Wales and the early signs are promising. FSA monitoring data for the year since mandatory display was introduced show that businesses with compliance levels equivalent to ratings of 3 and above have significantly increased.

Any extra burdens on businesses that may result must also be considered. The scheme is certainly designed so that there is a level playing field and so that businesses are treated fairly, but ensuring that we do not add red tape by putting the scheme on a statutory footing is important. The FSA is exploring this. It will also look carefully at the impact on local authorities and monitor the impact of the new requirement for care homes to display the ratings given to them by the Care Quality Commission. I understand that there is a care home somewhere that proudly displays its sticker with one star, and noble Lords might wonder why. The Government will consider this evidence once it is available. I am really pleased that the scheme is making a real difference. It is equipping consumers with knowledge about hygiene standards in food outlets, and encouraging businesses to raise their game and strive to achieve the highest ratings. This is just the sort of initiative that the Government want.

I was pushed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the Deregulation Bill. My team has told me that it is perfectly okay for me to say that I am going to go away and talk to colleagues in the Department of Health. Deregulation is in the Cabinet Office, but I am sure that the Department of Health can talk to the Cabinet Office. Ultimately, in all this, improved public health protection is the winner.

Sitting suspended.