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2 pm

Will the Minister clarify the divisions of responsibility for food import checks? He says that port health authorities and local authorities are requested to undertake checks, yet the Food Standards Agency also holds responsibility. Will he confirm the exact role it plays in import checks? Will he consider giving that Government agency, which has gained cross-party support for its vigilant attitude to food safety, full overall responsibility, or should a new body be formed to take responsibility for checking for illegal imports?

The National Farmers Union has written to Members, stating that the range of different agencies involved and the undoubted practical problems associated with enforcement are putting the United Kingdom livestock sector under continued threat. Who could argue with that?

Mr. Wiggin: Is not the FSA a responsibility of the Department of Health? That is another example of a lack of joined-up government.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend is right. The FSA relates to health, but it also relates to animal health. My point is that there is no joined-up government; it is absolutely disjointed. Various bodies hold various responsibilities—there appears to be no coherent policy whatever. I genuinely believe that the Government must urgently address that matter.

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The NFU also questions whether the Government have shown sufficient commitment on the vital issue of illegal imports. Although the union acknowledges that the United Kingdom may never be able to achieve 100 per cent. protection from the import of animal disease

The Minister has told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that, in his view,

and we all agree that there may very well be cases before the outbreak is definitely over.

Why, then, are the Government considering legislation that I believe to be hasty and insensitive to the needs of the farming community and that allows the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to plan for future outbreaks? Why do not the Government take preventive action and consider eradicating the possibility of further epidemics by removing the very source of disease through stronger food import controls?

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): The hon. Lady makes the strong point that, as well as introducing new measures to control future outbreaks, the Bill ought to reduce the likelihood of outbreaks or the rate at which they develop. No doubt she will support my new clauses 9 and 10.

Mrs. Winterton: No doubt the hon. Gentleman will support new clause 1, as one good turn deserves another. The point of tabling my new clause is to return us once again to everything that this country has gone through since February and the cost, not just to taxpayers, but to farmers, their families, animals, DEFRA officials and veterinary surgeons. The answer is prevention, which is the first issue we should consider. Through tabling the new clause, I seek from the Minister an indication that the Government are serious.

Mr. Drew: Is the hon. Lady saying that the Animal Health Act 1981, which gives powers regarding the control of imports, is insufficient? If so, why has she not tabled a new clause to that effect?

Mrs. Winterton: I am saying that, even if the Act were sufficient, the powers are not being used. I have tabled a new clause that would make the Minister responsible produce an annual report outlining precisely the actions taken. It is a spur to make the Government solve the problem more quickly.

Whatever mechanism is used, action should be taken. The new clause may not be perfect, but it is an honest attempt to raise what I believe to be the most important issue facing the agriculture community and, indeed, people living in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Nothing in new clause 1, or indeed new clause 4, would strengthen powers relating to animal health. What we seek is a commitment from the Government to be more open in their measures to crack down on illegal meat imports and deal with the concerns of those in the farming industry, who often describe in anecdotal terms what is happening in this

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country. Surely, if the Bill seeks to penalise farmers for poor biosecurity, we should seek from the Government a similar undertaking to be as open and honest as possible in all their efforts to ensure that both illegal and legal meat imports are of the highest quality.

Mrs. Winterton: That is a sound point. We look to the Government to take the necessary action. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I would have liked the new clause to go much further—but we must be realistic and appreciate that, in the numbers game, it is hardly likely that the Government will accept this modest proposal. I am trying to give them an opportunity to accept it, to demonstrate their acceptance by what they do from now on, and to place in the House a record of what they have done. If by any chance they feel that they have not the necessary powers, they should bear in mind that, as the hon. Gentleman hinted, they could have introduced them in the Bill. They have introduced enough draconian and sweeping powers that run contrary to natural justice. I am amazed that they have not put first things first on this occasion.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Winterton: I will. I must make some progress after that, but I do not want to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who is to be my ally.

David Taylor: Not on this occasion.

The hon. Lady welcomed and endorsed the suggestion by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that illegal meat imports should be of the highest quality. Can she tell us how we can attain such an elusive goal?

Mrs. Winterton: I think the hon. Gentleman jests. He knows quite well that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) did not mean that at all.

David Taylor: He said it.

Mrs. Winterton: If he said it, no doubt he will wish to correct the impression that he gave. I know the hon. Member for Ceredigion—I know the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) as well, of course—and that is not a view that he would ever express or espouse. I shall rush to his defence, and pull out my trusty sword. [Interruption.] There will be no blood on the carpet this afternoon; that would not do. I fear that you are about to rule us out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker: I had better get on.

As I have said, new clause 1 is very modest. An annual review of import controls would ensure that the situation remained under constant appraisal, and—a more urgent requirement—that local authorities and central Government adopted a joined-up and collective approach to import checks. I urge the Government to consider the proposal carefully, and then to implement an annual review with immediate effect. It would cost them nothing apart from a lot of good will, and they would do much good in the process.

On 14 June, the Netherlands banned the import of pigs and fresh pigmeat from Spain after an outbreak of swine fever. That move by Dutch officials strengthened action already taken by the European Commission, which at the

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time banned live exports from the region of the country affected. Why could the United Kingdom not adopt a similar approach to defend our shores from a repeat infection of animal diseases that have such catastrophic consequences for farmers in rural areas, for our economy and, indeed, for our international reputation?

We believe that it should be Government policy to defend the high standards of British agriculture, especially those that underpin Britain's exemplary record on animal welfare. Food imports that do not match the standards required of British farmers by law must not be allowed to undercut British produce, and thus undermine British standards.

I urge the Government to ban unfair agriculture imports—not, I hasten to add, imports that are unfair in terms of pricing, but those that have not reached the quality that we expect our farmers to produce. The Government have repeatedly refused to go along that route.

Mr. Morley: It is illegal.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister says that it is illegal. That means that we have imported legally the chicken breasts that I mentioned earlier that were on the front page of the Daily Express.

Mr. Morley: There is a misconception. I have heard it before. A proposal to ban imports that do not meet our standards would be illegal. All imports into this country have to meet the same standards that are applied in relation to the EU: for example, standards on slaughterhouses. It is true that some products and production methods in the United Kingdom are higher than those standards. There are various reasons for that and various choices, but all imported meat has to meet those EU standards. In that case, they are legal. A proposal to ban them would be illegal.

Mrs. Winterton: The recent outbreak started in February. If the Government had been the French Government, they would have immediately stuck two fingers in the air—[Interruption.] It may cost them a lot of money, but I bet that our producers will not receive compensation for the lack of business and the terrible difficulties that they have faced because of the French ban on British beef. If foot and mouth had been imported into France, as it was into this country, the French would have immediately, not knowing what the source was—the UK Government do not yet know—ceased the import of meat and meat products from countries where there was endemic foot and mouth. Consumers and farming communities in the UK would have liked that sort of action in order to protect animal health and human health in the UK.

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