Restaurant owners in York have been able to keep hygiene problems secret, by paying for council staff to make a private visit ahead of the official one.
The Food Hygiene Rating Scheme, commonly known as Scores On The Doors, aims to provide clear information to customers about the hygiene of a business or venue.
Hygiene inspections are to be unannounced, but City of York Council has been selling advance visits since 2015, YorkMix has learned. The visits allow businesses to resolve potential problems privately, averting potential embarrassment and public attention.
Staff made 234 ‘pre food hygiene rating inspection advice visits’ from April 2015 to December 2018, generating just over £48,000, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show.
More than £230 a visit
Businesses are charged £67.30 an hour plus VAT.
In the first nine months of 2018/19, up to the end of December, there were 56 visits. They brought in £13,293.60, which works out at about £237 per visit.
There were 74 visits in 2017/18 and almost three quarters of businesses visited increased their score, with 77% then scoring the maximum rating of 5.
Some in the hospitality trade are against the procedure. One York licensee told YorkMix:
I’m dead against it and never used it. A hygiene visit should be just that, to make sure you are carrying out safe procedures at all times.
It should not be about money. I have no objections to them helping people make sure they are compliant but that should not come at a cost that some people can’t afford.
Another local businessman told us:
If I was worried about an inspection I would be inclined to use the service.
It would rankle a bit, as hospitality is already disproportionately hit with business rates, so it would be nice if they could help out with a lower fee.
But compliance is such a nightmare generally, and is a particularly heavy burden for small independents who cannot afford in-house specialists, or expensive consultants.
A bit of help ‘passing the test’, as it were, would be quite welcome.
The council says the service is not provided for profit but says it helps to offset the cost of providing all environmental health and trading standards visits.
In a 2018 council report, Cllr Andrew Waller, executive member for the environment, said: “These effectively give businesses the opportunity to pay for an advisory visit before their main inspection and to iron out problems which may impact on their score.”
The project was nominated last year for an excellence award from the Regulatory Delivery Office and is unusual but not unique.
The Food Standards Agency said: “We are aware of some other local authorities in England offering similar services. Local authorities have the discretion to charge for several services on a cost recovery basis.”
Other councils to run such schemes include Norwich, Salford, Ashfield and Lancaster.
The FSA said it issued guidelines for councils to avoid conflicts of interest. Matt Boxall, head of public protection at York council, said the pre-inspection visits and the formal inspections were carried out by different teams within his department.
City of York Council had been struggling with a long backlog of inspections, leading to many businesses going years without being checked.
In late 2016, there were 503 venues in York that had gone more than three years without an inspection, but that figure now stands at 99.
In the 2018 report, Cllr Waller said the high number of food business in York and the rate of turnover made it a challenge to keep on top of inspections, but said a new programme had helped the council to get “back on track” with visits.