To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the estimated cost to the taxpayer of requiring food business operators in England to display the relevant food hygiene rating score at the entrance to premises.
My Lords, the highly successful food hygiene rating scheme plays a key role in protecting public health. I thank the noble Lord for championing the scheme and am grateful for his continued support. Making display of ratings mandatory is a sound proposal to which we are giving great consideration. There would be some minimal cost to the taxpayer but significant benefit in terms of improved food safety.
I am grateful for that positive answer from the Minister. From my time at the Food Standards Agency, I realise that the legislation is there in place and we now have the evidence. Since 2014, when all English local authorities joined the scheme, we know that 70% of food businesses that scored only zero to two do not display it. It would be tragic if we ended up with a food poisoning outbreak before acting. We know from Wales and Northern Ireland that it can be very successful. I wish the Minister well. It could be slipped in on the back of any Bill going through the House that is related to public health.
My Lords, I completely endorse the noble Lord’s points. There is robust evidence that the FHRS has driven up hygiene standards in food businesses, thereby reducing the risk to consumers. It was identified by the Royal Society for Public Health as one of the top 20 public health achievements of 21st century. We have received a case for a statutory scheme in England, and Ministers have given a commitment in Parliament to consider the scheme in due course.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the local authorities, not just in connection with this scheme but in connection with the testing that they do, particularly environmental health officers. They are at the front line of keeping us all safe from food poisoning and food fraud. But does my noble friend share my concern that, while some individual councils have an excellent track record of testing, others do hardly any at all? Is he concerned at the lack of resources that cash-strapped councils might face at this time to prevent food fraud occurring?
My Lords, the pattern of food inspection rates across the country is uneven, as my noble friend points out. However, the costs of implementing this scheme should not and might not be a hurdle for implementation. We believe that it would actually serve as a potential encouragement for those doing food inspections to see the results of their work published in a mandatory fashion.
My Lords, I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I was left a little uncertain as to when the Government would make it mandatory for all food outlets in Britain to display these notices, as it is in Northern Ireland and indeed in Wales. Everyone agrees that it is a brilliant, simple and overall cost-effective way of ensuring health, so when will it become mandatory and universal across England?
My Lords, I cannot commit at this point at the Dispatch Box to a date, as the noble Baroness has asked. However, I will express an enormous amount of warmth towards the idea. I acknowledge that only 55% of businesses in England display their ratings for their premises, whereas in Wales, where it is mandatory, the number of businesses with the highest rating of five has increased by 25% since the introduction of mandatory displays in 2013. That is surely good evidence that the scheme has impact and works.
My Lords, but is the Minister aware that in Uxbridge, of 263 food outlets, 21 have not been inspected and 30 scored only between zero and two and, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said, are unlikely to display that? If this is replicated throughout England, there will be thousands of outlets not displaying it. Until it becomes mandatory, what are the Government going to do about it?
Well, my Lords, the situation in Uxbridge is clearly one of grave concern, and I share the noble Lord’s concerns—but that is not the national picture. As I said earlier, in England generally 55% of businesses display their rating. This is not enough, which is why we are considering the measure with the scrutiny that we are.
My Lords, we all agree that the food hygiene rating scores are important to give the public confidence in the food being prepared, sold and served to them. As we have said, there is no legal requirement to display that score. If you have a score of five, you proudly display it; if you have a one or two, it is in some dark corner which nobody sees. As other noble Lords have said, it is really important, especially at this time, to restore public confidence. I urge the Minister to go back to the Government and get this done soon. It is a local government issue, not really a health and safety one.
My Lords, I completely acknowledge the persuasive statistics from the noble Baroness. FSA analysis suggests that food-borne illness outbreaks are twice as likely to occur in businesses with a low rating than those with a rating of three, four or five. These are very concerning figures. We completely take on board the statistics that the noble Baroness has cited, and I shall take them back to the department, as she suggests.
My Lords, has the pandemic had any impact on the overall food standards and hygiene ratings of various outlets? Do local authorities need more resources to continue to carry out the checks that they are required to make?
My Lords, it is probably too early to make an accurate analysis, but one impact that has happened in the food industry is the move to online deliveries. That is why we are considering the application of mandatory rating for online deliveries as well as for restaurants. Online deliveries are a terrific benefit to society, but it is important that they also have regulatory scrutiny, and we will bear that in mind in any future review.
My Lords, the consumer magazine Which? has warned that customers are at risk of being left in the dark or misled about food hygiene standards and that the regulator and local councils need to take strong action against businesses that fail to display ratings, or display incorrect ratings that mislead customers. What action are the Government taking to address this? Would he agree that England following Wales and Northern Ireland in the mandatory display of food ratings, as well as restoration after the savage cuts to local council food hygiene budgets and local environmental health services and staff, would help to tackle this problem?
The noble Baroness puts the case very well. I completely acknowledge that the FSA favours extending mandatory display ratings to England and that in June and November last year the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee respectively recommended that the FSA pursues this ambition as soon as possible. We very much take on board the views of all these public bodies and will consider the advice given to Ministers as soon as possible.
My Lords, the Minister has indicated a warmth towards placing this rating on a mandatory footing. For the avoidance of doubt, can he indicate what is stopping the Government from doing it? Is it the legislative timeframe?
My Lords, the immediate concern is, of course, the epidemic, which has slowed things down. It means that management resources that should be dedicated to things such as this are currently distracted. But I reassure the noble Baroness that work is being conducted on the advice being given to Ministers. Updates have been given in the other place on the progress of this policy. I can do nothing more than express warmth at the moment, but there will be decisions and movement on this in the near future.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interests in the register. Do the Government have national details of the number of inspectors employed by local authorities to carry out these food hygiene and environmental health inspections? What is the national guidance, if any, on the frequency of these inspections, and is funding a determining factor?
My Lords, the role of the inspectors is a local authority responsibility. While there may be national figures, I am afraid that I do not have them at my disposal, but I would be glad to write to my noble friend Lady Warsi with whatever data we have on the questions that she has asked.
My Lords, could not the taxpayer get even greater value for money if the rating incorporated a rating on how well premises were adhering to Covid safety measures? That is the kind of reassurance that I would like to see before I walk through the doors of any catering establishment.
Well, the noble Baroness makes a strong case. I think a lot of consumers would like to see the kind of rating that she describes. I am not sure whether it is rightly the responsibility of food inspectors to provide that complex service, but we are working very closely with the hospitality sector on both tracing and the implementation of Covid-friendly measures. The response from the sector has been extremely strong, but we are maintaining a close analysis of progress.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the fourth Oral Question.