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Orders of the Day

Animal Health Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Annual report on animal diseases

'In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 10—
"10A Annual report on animal diseases
The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament in each calendar year a report on measures taken by Government departments and agencies and other public bodies to prevent the importation into the United Kingdom of the diseases mentioned in Schedule 2A.".'.—[Mrs. Ann Winterton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.34 pm

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Annual review of import controls

'In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 10.
"10A Annual review of import controls
(1) The Ministers shall prepare a report during each financial year reviewing all of the activities of government departments, the Food Standards Agency, local authorities, port health authorities and other relevant public agencies directed to the prevention of the introduction of disease into or within England and Wales through the importation of animals and other things, including their making of orders under section 10 of this Act, assessing the effectiveness of the action taken, and proposing such further action as may, in the opinion of the Ministers, be required to further reduce the risk of disease being imported.
(2) The Ministers shall, as soon as possible after the end of each financial year, lay their report before Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.".'.

Mrs. Winterton: I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who has responsibility for animal health, is on the Front Bench, having returned, no doubt triumphantly, from a conference that the Government organised in Belgium on the eradication of foot and mouth disease. A press release on the conference says that the Secretary of State addressed it on the way in which the outbreak developed and was tackled. However, she did not tell the conference the cause of the outbreak, which is one reason why the Opposition have tabled the new clause.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): A bit late.

Mrs. Winterton: It is not late. It will not have escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that we are not in government; I remind him that both foot and mouth outbreaks, in 1967 and this year, occurred when a Labour Government were in office. In 1967, the relevant Minister handled the matter in an exemplary fashion and, as a result, the very good Northumberland report was produced, which pointed to the way forward for the future. I concede that, sadly, successive Governments

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have not done enough work on preventing further outbreaks of animal disease from being imported into the country.

The saying "Prevention is better than cure" is echoed by the farming community today, despite the introduction of the Bill, which was conceived in haste to put right legal problems encountered during the foot and mouth epidemic and also to deal with matters relating to scrapie, about which there is no hurry at all. However, the Government have not addressed the real problem facing the country—our vulnerability to future infection. The United Kingdom will be as vulnerable as ever to the importation of animal, plant and even human disease, even after the enactment of the Bill.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): My hon. Friend will know that, although the Government introduced the Bill before their own inquiries reported, Professor Mercer's report for Devon county council makes action on imports the first recommendation in his conclusion.

Mrs. Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former Minister and an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament. She is right; in fact she has uttered the words that I would have uttered a little later in my speech; in fact, I probably will still utter them as the point is well worth making again. Well done Devon is all that I have got to say. Would that the Government had tackled the problem as a matter of urgency.

New clause 1 would oblige Ministers to conduct an annual review of the effectiveness of actions by all the agencies concerned to prevent animal disease, including foot and mouth, from being brought into the United Kingdom. We are an island nation; many farmers have asked me why the sea that surrounds us, which should form a protective barrier, has not done so.

Our defences against the importation of disease are minimal. At our airports and seaports, checks on baggage and goods in transit are infrequent, but when they are made, more often than not they reveal illegal imports of food, particularly meat. Many people travel extensively and visitors to the United States of America, Australia or New Zealand cannot fail to be impressed by the extremely tough and thorough precautions undertaken by those countries to minimise the risk of importing disease. I admire the policies of those countries and their actions, which have proved to be extremely successful.

Why should the United Kingdom leave itself wide open to unnecessary risk of disease in the future, and why have the Government not taken any meaningful action to clamp down on illegal imports? I have no doubt that the usual talking shops will have been set up between representatives of the various agencies involved, such as Customs and Excise, the Food Standards Agency, local and port health authorities and the Home Office, in order to find a way in which import controls could be strengthened, but what action has been taken?

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): None.

Mrs. Winterton: What decisions have Ministers made to protect animal, plant and human health?

Mr. Bacon: None.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend takes the words from my mouth. Answer is there none. What a disgrace.

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What an insult to the farming community, which has suffered so much as a result of Government incompetence and inaction. How much longer must we wait until the nettle is grasped—

Mr. Bacon: Until the next Conservative Government. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend is right. He is very enthusiastic, and so he should be. The Government's inaction will have been noted by people in the country. They look to the Government to do something to help the situation, instead of doing nothing. I am not sure whether Ministers are prepared to take the necessary action to protect the United Kingdom from a scourge similar to the recent foot and mouth epidemic.

We may never discover the precise cause of the outbreak, mainly because the Government have refused point-blank to hold a full, independent public inquiry. At least the Devon inquiry undertaken by the county council, and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred, points us in the right direction and recommends that prevention of disease through importation should be given the highest priority.

Many organisations involved in the rearing of livestock have commented on the present unsatisfactory arrangements. In December 2000 the National Pig Association forwarded comments as evidence to the then Select Committee on Agriculture regarding the Government's handling of the classical swine fever outbreak in August last year. Those comments included criticism of the lack of speed of Government action, and went on:

The association continued with an analysis of the lack of a governmental contingency plan:

As a result of the classical swine fever outbreak, the NPA had clearly understood the Government's irresponsible attitude to the amount of food imports entering the country, which remains as big a risk today as it was last year or in February 2001.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I hear the hon. Lady's allegations about lack of action, inadequacy and illegal imports, but what firm evidence has she about the scale of illegal imports? What evidence has she that the measures that we have taken are not deterring illegal imports? I accept that if an activity is illegal, one cannot guarantee that it will never occur, but what is the evidence to back up the hon. Lady's allegations leading to all those terrible consequences?

Mrs. Winterton: It does not become the Minister to be as complacent as he appears about the serious problem of animal, plant and human diseases that may come into this country in illegally imported meat and meat products.

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He is right that no Government can guarantee that no disease will enter the country in that way, but I wonder whether he has recently travelled extensively as a private individual—[Interruption.] Would he like to intervene on that point? I think that I heard him mention checks from a sedentary position. What checks?

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