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Going separate ways

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IT might be seen as just another step in the seemingly inexorable process of devolution, but the Scottish Government's decision to break away from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and form a new Scottish body for food safety, food standards, nutrition, food labelling and meat inspection is more directly a consequence of the UK Government's review in 2010 of its arm's length bodies (referred to at the time as the bonfire of the quangos). As far as the FSA was concerned, there was always something slightly illogical about the outcome of that review, in that it resulted in some of its responsibilities being transferred to government departments in England, but not in the devolved administrations, which meant that its remit varied in different parts of the UK. The outcome, confusingly, was that, in England and Wales, the FSA's responsibilities for nutrition and food labelling were transferred to government health departments while, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, they remained with the FSA. Meanwhile, although some non-safety-related food labelling and composition responsibilities were transferred to Defra in England, they remained with the FSA in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is probably unlikely that the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee had the FSA specifically in mind when, in 2011, it described the Government's review of its arm's length bodies as having been rushed, poorly handled and insufficiently thought through (VR, January 15, 2011, vol 168, p 34). However, the outcome certainly contributed to the Scottish Government's decision to review the situation in Scotland, and has now led to its decision to establish a separate agency.

The remit of the Scottish agency will be broadly similar to that of the FSA before the UK Government's review in 2010, in that it will continue to be responsible for advice on nutrition and food labelling, as well as for food standards and safety. How much difference this will make in practical terms remains to be seen. The question of where nutritional advice should sit within government was the subject of debate even before the FSA was established in 2000, and is likely to continue to be for some time yet, with some people arguing that it should be integral to the work of any agency concerned with ensuring the safety of food, and others suggesting that it could divert the agency from its main purpose. Now there will be a chance to see how well both systems operate. What is more important is that public confidence in the advice provided by the agencies is maintained. When the FSA was set up in 2000, the Government's credibility on food safety was at an all time low, and every announcement on the subject seemed to be followed by a full-blown food scare. The problem largely stemmed from a lack of transparency about how decisions affecting consumers were reached and communicated by government, and part of the thinking behind the new agency was that, by establishing an arm's length body that could be seen to act openly and independently, consumer confidence could be restored. Once it was established, the FSA undoubtedly proved successful in helping to restore confidence and, indeed, is often held up as an example of how transparency should operate in government.

The Scottish agency will apparently operate on similar principles, which is reassuring. However, whether this can be a case of two heads being better than one is debatable, and activities will clearly need to be coordinated. Scotland and England aren't that far apart, and people eat much the same food. How might they react if, as could easily happen, the two agencies offer different and possibly conflicting advice on a particular food issue?

At a time when budgets are being cut across the board, there must also be concerns relating to duplication of effort and economies of scale. This could be a particular worry as far as FSA-sponsored research is concerned, where available funding cannot be spread too thinly across too many areas.

It is clear from the Scudamore report which was commissioned by the Scottish Government to assess its arrangements that, in Scotland at least, responsibility for nutrition and labelling is considered to be an integral part of a food safety agency's remit, and it remains frustrating that, until the UK Government changed this, the FSA was widely considered to be working well. It has to be hoped that the FSA is not weakened by the formation of a separate body in Scotland and that two agencies might yet prove to be at least as effective, if not stronger, than one.

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