Lorries queue on the A2 to enter the Port of Dover

Food law shake-up concerns grow

Proposed changes aim to address shortage of EHPs but questions around judging competency remain.
26 November 2020 , Katie Coyne

Unease is growing that a proposed shake-up to food law may downgrade skills and knowledge, and place additional burdens on local authorities.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is consulting in England and Northern Ireland on changes to the food law code of practice that would widen the pool of officers that can undertake food inspections. Also proposed is a move from a profession-based approach to a competency framework.

A further concern is that while the changes being proposed are huge, the consultation period is just four weeks, and CIEH is urging all members and stakeholders to take part in the consultation before the 10 December deadline.

A consultation over proposed changes in Wales was postponed after the Public Protection Wales (PPW) group intervened.

The changes are being suggested as a way of addressing the shortage of EH officers qualified in this area, particularly with the end of the transition period looming that some have estimated will double port health authority workload.

However, a recent CIEH webinar (a recording is available here for CIEH members, login required) revealed concern around the proposals.

One local authority manager raised the issue of consistency: “If we have 390 local authorities and every one of them is going to have to make a competency judgements, there will be 390 answers as to what competency looks like.”

They added that ongoing assessment would be required as “competency is not something that stands still” concluding that “certainly at the moment it is an undue burden on the local authority”.

A lack of consistency could lead to legal challenges another panellist warned who added that they were “disturbed” by the proposals and that businesses too would not be welcoming, as they experience “better and fairer” treatment from people who are “professionally competent and more rounded, holistic in their approach”.

While it is hoped that the proposed changes will address a shortage of officers at ports to deal with the work associated with the end of Brexit transition period, one participant counselled that ports were a “highly specialised niche area” and that even officers with inland experience took at least a year to be confident in relation to food import controls.

Another area of concern highlighted was the lack of anywhere to record the logic and evidence as to how and why competency of an officer has been reached, which could again open up the possibility of legal challenge.

The panel was also asked whether a degree or masters in EH should be recognised as a suitable qualification, and the panel was unanimous in agreeing that while it was valuable, on its own it was not enough. “We all know what the definition of public health is,” said one participant, “it's that combination of art and science together to protect our communities.

“[But] you need well rounded individuals sitting within an organisation of a positive culture of support and guidance for communities, of enforcing where appropriate. […] That is not learnt on the degree.”

They added that the qualities “we value in good officers are learnt in the workplace. They are maybe what you might call the softer skills, which I notice are quite absent from that competency framework. So it’s about how do I speak to people? How do I persuade somebody to stop doing something? How do I change the behaviour? Those are the real serious skills of being an EH officer.”

Would the proposals help local authorities solve the shortage of EH food officers, the panel was asked? The panel thought not, as with people coming into the profession with lower qualifications this would then necessitate: “a tremendous amount of investment in terms of team leaders and managers to get them up to speed.

“Let's not forget this competency framework is 100 pages long. It's an industry in itself. People are going to be recruiting team leaders just to pump people through this competency thing all the time.”

The question was turned on its head, as one panellist raised the question of the harm that could be done to public health, as well as public confidence, through employing people in these roles who do not have the right qualifications or competencies.

Another participant agreed adding: “This is about health protection. We've workforce crises in other areas of public service. We have a nursing crisis, for example. So we don't say ‘let's do down the qualifications and competencies of the nurses to solve that’.”

A suggestion was raised to engage more with the public, and consumer groups to highlight the work of EH: “We are a friend of the human race. We do loads of different things and let's try and sort of modernise ourselves in the view of the consumer. I think that can only help because frankly, I don't think the FSA will really get it, which is why they now are seeking to strip away those bits of professionalism.”

One of the participants argued that CIEH and FSA had been “negligent” in watching the workforce diminish every year. While highlighting the recent work of CIEH to address this in campaigns such as #ChooseEnvironmentalHealth, they added: “We really, really need now to think about how we can build this workforce”.

For an in-depth look at the ‘perfect storm’ of challenges facing port health, read the cover feature in the December 2020-January 2021 issue of EHN, out in early December.

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