Huw’s speech on The Elliott Report and Food Fraud

Huw’s addressed the House of Commons on Monday 8th September on Food Fraud and the publication of the final Elliot Report, below is the text of his speech including interventions in the Debate:

Huw in Parliament for website

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed. We may be few in number, but we have had a very insightful debate with a lot of quality in the speeches, with more to come as well.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), in response to an intervention, accused me of bringing politics into the debate—heaven forfend! That is my day job; I am a politician. I try to deal with evidence and rationality, but I am also elected democratically and I am a politician. If the hon. Gentleman, who is no longer in his place, does not understand that, I will happily sit down with him over a coffee.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) on introducing the debate. We go back a very long way. He talked about the 2001 election, which was delayed because of foot and mouth. I recall that well, because we were sparring partners, but he was also seeing daily, alongside farmers, the horror of the burning carcases. He has great experience in this area. He reminded us of the importance of Elliott, food fraud, food criminality, traceability and all the aspects of this to the farming community. As many hon. Members have said, those who are often hit really badly by this are the primary producers—farmers. It is they who get squeezed, whether in price wars or in burdens being laid on them. We need to guard against that.

The hon. Gentleman, like many others, strongly supports the proposals in the Elliott report. As hon. Members will know, I have spent my weekend poring over every line and word of it, as well as other briefings and so on. Professor Elliott makes it crystal clear that not only the eight pillars of food integrity but every detail must hold together. These proposals are not to be cherry-picked; equal effort must be put into every aspect.

During an intervention on the hon. Gentleman, we briefly discussed the FSA’s interim proposals, which some would argue have different emphasis from the final report. However, it is about more than degrees of emphasis, because the Troop proposals mentioned by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who chairs the EFRA Committee, among others, expressed a preference for putting these responsibilities into the FSA. Even though this is slightly modified in the report, Elliott makes it clear that if that is not going to be the case, he wants the matter to be pursued in a different way with equal rigour and clarity. Let us see how it emerges.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has great experience in these matters. I served alongside him when he was the Minister responsible for food, farming and agriculture. He brought a great deal of experience to bear, as he always does in these debates. He talked about not having the full impact of this falling on farming communities. He discussed, as did others, including the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), the importance of the red tractor assurance scheme. That is an important element of some of the briefings from the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation, and Which? magazine—I am sorry, not Which? Magazine but Which? the consumers association. It used to be a magazine when I was a young man but now it is far more than that.

My hon. Friend said that Elliott is proposing not to increase burdens but to reduce the burdens on the good guys and put the burdens on to the bad guys and the criminals. He talked about the importance of a strategic laboratory service, which is crucial. He asked whether the resources were sufficient for this very wide-ranging set of proposals to do Elliott justice. He referred to the machinery of government changes in the FSA. Like many Members, he queried why prosecutions are so few and far between and often do not go after the big fish in the pond.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has a great deal of experience in this area. I commend not only her speech but the work that the EFRA Committee has done over time on putting a spotlight on to this issue with considerable detail and forensic analysis. She opened her remarks by paying tribute to a friend of all of us right across the House—the late Jim Dobbin. We are all very sad and our thoughts are with his family. One of his great causes related to DEFRA—open access and the right to roam. There is nothing more political than putting one foot in front of the other and walking out into the countryside. He was a great believer in that. In fact, I have a debate about such matters on Wednesday afternoon in Westminster Hall, and anybody who wants to can come and take part.

The hon. Lady talked about the desirability of shorter supply chains. A lot of the retailers have “got” that now, but we have to keep the pressure on. On the day of the National Farmers Union conference a year ago, one retailer—I will not name it for fear of embarrassment but it knows who it is—took out full-page adverts with a big banner headline saying, “We get it”, that talked about how it would transform its business. I have met it subsequently, and it is trying to do that. It is our biggest supermarket chain. A lot of farmers are now watching for it to carry that through relentlessly.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), the hon. Lady talked about penalties, which the hon. Member for York Outer also mentioned. We need to consider not only what the Sentencing Council is doing, and stronger penalties, but broader penalties so that some of these cases do not have to end up in court. That could be to do with naming and shaming, but there might be McCrory-style types of penalties that deal in the right way with relatively minor offences early on and deal in a heavy-duty way with the big offenders as well.

It was asked whether more incidents have taken place post-horsemeat. It is interesting to refer to the very good House of Commons Library briefing, which draws on Elliott’s observation that in 2007 there were 49 reports of food fraud to the FSA’s food fraud database, while in 2013 it received 1,538 reports. According to the National Audit Office, local authorities reported 1,380 cases of food fraud in 2012, up by two thirds since 2010. That is the scale of what we are looking at. That emphasises the importance of local authority intelligence, which a few hon. Members mentioned, and of how this ties together. It will not all be carried out by serious crime people; local information on the ground will open it out.

Miss McIntosh: As I hope the hon. Gentleman will confirm, there is not sufficient intelligence. A lot of the testing is done purely on the basis of risk assessment. The key is not just the food crime unit but the fact that there will be spot checks—unannounced audits. Surely that has to be a good thing.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I could not agree more. I hope that the Minister will also say that that is the way forward. It is not only about routine checks or risk assessment-based checks but turning up unannounced.

The hon. Lady rightly made a point about Troop and the FSA leadership, and clarity of roles. She also talked about the police’s powers of arrest, and I will be interested in the Minister’s response to that.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), a former Minister in the Department who also has great experience, discussed the importance of cultural change, which is crucial. He rightly talked about the importance of driving this through every area, including catering. It has to go deep into every individual sector and employee as well as the bosses and the leadership. The importance of caterers was brought home in the horsemeat scandal, because horsemeat was appearing not only in hospitals and schools but in the food used by caterers who were supplying Royal Ascot and the royal family—so at least we were all in it together.

On the complexity of the supply chain, Elliott says that we have to recognise that, even though it is more desirable to have shorter supply chains and to encourage food retailers and providers to move towards them, we are in a global system, under which global intelligence and the pursuit of crime come into play. He also says, wisely, that ultimately the food price wars that take place from time to time, including now, are not good for the consumer if they jeopardise food authenticity or—heaven help us—food safety.

The hon. Member for York Outer spoke up strongly for British farming and food produce. He talked about the gold standard of British farming and I agree with him. Curiously, when we were on the Government Benches, others would shout at us about gold-plating, but that is exactly the gold standard he was talking about. That is the reason our exports to many other countries are doing well—they demand the standards of animal welfare, hygiene and testing that this country delivers. Regulation is a darn good thing when it protects the consumer and allows us to export around the world. Curiously, the FSA has traditionally been looked on as the gold standard of food regulation.

The hon. Gentleman also talked wisely about the importance of knowing where our food actually comes from. There is a great deal of work to do on that right across the population, ourselves included. There is real value in knowing where food comes from; it ties into so many good things.

The Labour party is very clear—as we were when we were in government—that the consumer has always to be put first. That is why, when in government, we established a strong and independent Food Standards Agency, which had a powerful reach right across Government to regulate this vital industry that creates so many jobs and that wants the very highest standards. However, the changes brought about by tinkering with the machinery of Government have jeopardised that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): Professor Elliott says in his report that when the FSA had control of authenticity testing in 2007-08, under the previous Government, it took the decision, as an independent body, to cut spending on the testing programme. If the hon. Gentleman had been a Minister at the time and had received a submission recommending such a cut, would he have agreed with it or might he have questioned it?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I was not the Minister at the time, but I would like the hon. Gentleman to continue to make his point, because Professor Chris Elliott was unable to address the detail. Will he confirm whether authenticity testing continued even though it had been reduced?

George Eustice: Yes, it continued, but the point Elliott makes is that the FSA, as an independent body, took the decision to start winding down authenticity testing.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Let me put it back to the hon. Gentleman: when the coalition Government entered office in 2010, one of their first decisions in DEFRA was to split away authenticity testing. At that point, did they think it was appropriate to increase investment in it? We could go back and forth on this issue, but authenticity testing was still happening at that time, even if it had been reduced. I am interested in the detail, but it was continuing.

Mr Heath: It is very important to distinguish between the testing regime that remains within the province of the FSA and local authorities, which continued according to their priorities, and the policy developed by civil servants, which was moved to DEFRA in order to inform Ministers who were having to deal with very complex European issues of labelling and composition. That was perfectly logical. If there was confusion, it was not at the level of central Government; it may have been elsewhere.

Huw Irranca-Davies: After the horsemeat scandal erupted in February 2013, the National Audit Office looked at the contributory factors to any delay or confusion. One of the things it pointed fairly and squarely at was the confusion as to who was doing what. It pointed the finger at the machinery of Government changes. The hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister, may be saying that he was not confused, but there was certainly confusion between local government and Whitehall, as well as within Whitehall, as to who was doing what. I agree with Troop and with Elliott’s interim findings that it should be put back together again, but we will have to differ on that. The question for the Government is, can they make this work if they are not going to do that?

One of our criticisms relates to the fact that just before we left government in 2010 we published what was at the time a ground-breaking, comprehensive food strategy, “Food 2030”, which followed on from our previous work on “Food Matters”. It mapped out a comprehensive and long-term strategy to ensure the provision of safe, nutritious, affordable and sustainable food, but it has been left on the shelf. Where is this Government’s overarching strategy to pull everything together? The answer is: there isn’t one.

Labour welcomes and supports fully all the Elliott report’s recommendations, and we will continue to urge the Government for full and speedy implementation. Professor Elliott sets out a new Government-industry partnership, some aspects of which will require a culture change in Government and in industry. He makes sound recommendations for a new food crime unit and a whole framework for national food crime prevention, encompassing Government, the FSA and industry. He calls for—it is interesting that he deals not just with the mechanics—a new mentality to meet the challenges of sourcing from complex international supply chains, and a zero-tolerance approach to food crime. He also fashions detailed proposals on whistleblowing, intelligence-gathering and co-ordinated laboratory and testing services, and stresses the need for leadership at all levels, including in Government. Most of all, he stresses—he puts this top dead centre—the need to put the consumer first, and we agree.

Labour supports the report and all its recommendations. We believe that the industry is ready to drive the culture that Elliott demands and that the consumer and the public deserve. I say to the Minister, however, that we have reservations: we do not have the same confidence that the Government are serious about these changes.

Make no mistake: the Elliott report is not only a series of sound recommendations, but is an expert analysis and critique of the coalition Government’s policy on food governance and food crime. Since 2010 under this coalition Government we have seen the fragmentation of food governance; an ideological fetishism for stripping out regulation for the sake of it, whether that regulation is good for the consumer and industry or not; and front-line cutbacks in inspection at national and local level and in food testing capabilities.

The Government have also been asleep at the wheel, reacting only when disaster happens, realising too late that cutting the brake cables and unscrewing the steering column was not a good idea. In 2010, one of this Government’s first actions was to split the responsibilities of the FSA, an agency that was, as I have said, previously regarded as the gold standard of consumer protection and industry regulation. It was deliberately fractured, which hampered clarity and leadership in food governance in the UK. It is not just me saying that; others are saying it, too.

The horsemeat scandal was the slow-motion car crash that showed how crazy that decision was. The NAO stated that when a prompt response was required to the breaking horsemeat scandal, there was confusion between and lack of leadership in Whitehall Departments and confusion between Whitehall and local government.

Similar, repeated concerns about the mishandling of the FSA and food governance have been raised for some time by the EFRA Committee and many other industry and food policy experts. Labour raised those concerns from the word go.

The interim Elliott report made it clear that the FSA responsibilities should be brought back together. That would deal with the NAO view that fragmentation had led to needless confusion and additional complexity. The final report has stepped back slightly, but it is still commendably forthright on the need to put rigour and reach back into the FSA.

On that and many other issues, the report carries implicit and sometimes explicit criticisms of this Government’s approach to food policy and food crime. It calls for a more robust FSA, retaining its independence, and for far greater co-ordination, which has been lacking, across Government and industry. It highlights the absence of high-level round-table meetings between the chair of the FSA and the Secretaries of State for Health and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which seems to me to be a shocking omission and a glaring fault bearing in mind the fragmentation of responsibilities since 2010.

The report cites evidence from recent local authority testing that appears to show high levels of failure, particularly in meat authenticity testing, which possibly indicates fraud or the criminal adulteration of food. That is deeply worrying set against a near halving in the number of DEFRA officials working on food authenticity since 2010, as revealed by an answer given to me by the Minister in July. It is even more worrying in the light of the immense pressures on local authorities, which have led to severe cutbacks in local food inspections.

Professor Elliott does not pull any punches. He states on page 49 of his report:

“Enforcement activity is…very vulnerable when local authority services are cut to the bone.”

He also draws attention to the average 27% reduction in the number of trading standards officers dealing with food matters, and to the 40% cut in overall trading standards services during the lifetime of this Government. Concerns for consumer protection and for the reputation of the industry are heightened when, as Elliott notes, the number of public analyst laboratories has been reduced from 10 in 2010 to six today. I simply say to the Minister that he has his work cut out if he is to explain how, against the background of cuts in front-line FSA inspection, front-line local authority inspection and laboratory facilities, he can do what Elliott asks and put the consumer first.

Given that we are now four and a half years into this Government, the Minister must explain why the UK has been behind the curve and behind European counterparts in establishing a food crime unit. That led Elliott to note that the Dutch crime unit could find no one in the UK—whether in a crime unit or anywhere else—to speak to when the horsemeat scandal happened. Had the Government’s reluctance to place any burdens on industry given them an aversion to being proactive in such a way? Had Ministers looked at the threat of food adulteration and food crime since taking office? I understand that the Minister was not in office for the whole of that time, but I am sure that he has discussed it with his officials.

One month after the horsemeat scandal erupted, a survey by the consumer organisation Which? found that six in 10 shoppers had changed their shopping habits, and that trust had fallen by a quarter. A year after the scandal, an Ipsos MORI survey showed that 95% of consumers remembered the horsemeat scandal. As has already been mentioned, the latest polling by Which? has shown this month that 55% of people are worried that a food fraud incident will happen again, that a third of them do not have confidence that the food they buy contains what it says on the label—by the way, that goes up to half for people who have takeaways on a Saturday night—and a quarter maintain that they have changed the type of meat they buy. Seven out of 10 consumers have told Which? that more action needs to be taken. The damage is lasting, so we need to get this right.

Let me ask the Minister some initial questions; in the months to come, we will return with more. As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton suggested, will the Minister publish a detailed timetable for the implementation of every recommendation in the Elliott review so that the Government’s warm words can be measured against actual implementation? Will he give assurances that the resources for the new crime unit and the crime framework to go with it can be found from within existing FSA funding?

Will the Minister now apologise on behalf of the Government for the decision to fragment the responsibilities of the FSA, or does he continue to ignore the argument that that decision damaged its power, authority and independence? Does he accept the Elliott proposal that the FSA should continue as a non-ministerial department so as to retain its necessary independence from the Government? How does he answer critics who believe that the FSA has gone beyond the necessary close co-operation with the industry and is now too close to the industry to be a useful and critical friend? The recent decision not to publish campylobacter rates is one such example.

Bearing in mind the need for a more robust and rigorous FSA based on the report’s proposals and the need for the FSA to have the effective and independent leadership identified by the Elliott report, will the Minister give us an update on the search for a new chair? Will he confirm that the person shortly to be proposed as chair will appear before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee before final confirmation in post?

Miss McIntosh indicated assent.

Huw Irranca-Davies: They will, which is great.

What other foodstuffs are of primary concern for authenticity fraud, and which are on the priorities list for criminal activity at present? How will the Minister guarantee that the high number of authenticity failures can be identified now and in future against the backdrop of cuts in the front-line services involved in food authenticity? As so many hon. Members have asked, 18 months after the horsemeat scandal erupted, why have prosecutions been so few and far between? Does he share the public’s frustration that criminals appear to be getting away with messing with their food?

Elliott repeatedly argues for improved co-operation on an international and especially a European level to tackle food crime and fraud. Does the Minister expect us to believe that the Government’s general approach to European co-operation and the specific Tory proposals to opt out of 130 areas of European policing and justice measures will help the fight against international food crime? If so, has he done an impact assessment on those proposals? Will he support calls for an urgent review of criminal, financial and other penalties to toughen and widen the measures against rogues and criminals, and to protect the many good food businesses? Finally—for now—will he guarantee consumers and the industry that another horsemeat scandal or the like will not happen in the short time left of this Government?

Let me end by saying that this Government have their work cut out to persuade the industry and consumers that they are serious about tackling food crime and fraud because, as they say in police dramas, this Government have got “previous”. Their track record of delay and dither when facing a crisis, their ideological aversion to effective regulation and their wholesale absence of leadership and strategic thinking on food mean that they are in the dock as a serial offender. We urge the Government to get serious about food crime, food governance and food strategy. We will support them if they drive through all the recommendations with the rigour they deserve, because consumers and this vital UK industry deserve no less.

To watch the debate please click here [Huw starts at 01:35:30]

To see the full transcript of the debate please click here