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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 27 February 2002

[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Meat Imports

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. McNulty.]

9.30 am

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to draw attention to the safety of meat imports. It could not have come at a more appropriate time given that we are celebrating—if that is the right word—the anniversary of the appalling outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which started at a pig farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall in my constituency. Coincidentally, the outbreak almost finished in my constituency. It did untold damage to farming there and throughout the north of England, Scotland and the south-west and caused devastation to the tourist industry.

On Monday, I visited the farm adjacent to Burnside farm where the first outbreak occurred. It was the anniversary of when the first pyre was lit at Burnside farm. Pictures of the blazing carcases of cattle, sheep and pigs were shown throughout the world and were a wonderful invitation to those in America to visit Britain. If we had wanted to put off tourists, we could not have done more. As a result of the disease, 6.5 million animals have been slaughtered. We have lost untold millions in tourism revenue—all because of imported meat. The cause of the outbreak must be linked to the illegal importation of infected meat.

The story was the same in 1967. The cause of that outbreak was never traced but again suspicion fell on lamb that was imported from Argentina. Furthermore, there was uncertainty about the cause of the outbreak of classical swine fever in 2000, but veterinary evidence tracked it down to a pork product. Fancifully, it was said that a pig was fed a ham sandwich in a pig unit. Whether that was true is not clear, but the three outbreaks can be linked to imported food.

The victims of the outbreak cannot understand why, 12 months on, stricter controls on the importation of meat products are not in place. All we have seen so far is posters at Heathrow airport advising people not to bring meat products into the country. We have been promised a forum to discuss the issue next month. The matter is urgent. People are staggered when they discover that, at Heathrow airport—one of the biggest cargo handling ports in the United Kingdom— the front line against such imports is manned by 10 environmental health officers employed by the London borough of Hillingdon who have 10 assistants to help them.

Those who read last night's Evening Standard will know the extent of what is brought into the country through Heathrow airport. The BBC alleged that, from May 2001 until a few weeks ago, no checks were made on meat at the airport. However, a spot check was made last week and, according to reports, that produced more than 300 kg of meat products.

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The imported goods are not regular meat products. Many of them are endangered species that have been brought into the country by airline passengers. One aircraft from Nigeria had a vast quantity of chicken, fish and meat in passengers' luggage. I was told that one suitcase in the cargo hold was leaking blood. The list of imports is fantastic. Live crabs, chimps, goats, anteaters, rats, antelopes, monkeys, snakes, different types of dried meat, fish, even tiger parts from Sri Lanka, India and Japan and bear parts from Russia have been brought in through Heathrow airport. All such meat carries considerable risk of disease, and not only for animals. As Professor Joe Brownlie of the Royal Veterinary College said, it could pose a risk to humans through the spread of tuberculosis or other diseases imported from Africa. This is a serious matter.

The real problem is not so much the products that make headlines, but the importation of large quantities of illegal meat. We legally import large quantities of meat from countries in which foot and mouth is endemic. In the other place, Lord Vincent questioned the Minister about the amount of meat imported from such countries. We import 81,000 tonnes of meat from Brazil, 11,000 tonnes from Botswana and 8,000 tonnes from Namibia. In all, we import more than 100,000 tonnes of meat products from countries that have endemic foot and mouth disease.

The problem of illegal meat is, of course, much more complicated because we cannot tell how much comes in—much of the evidence is anecdotal. However, I believe that several thousand tonnes of illegal meat are imported every year, some of which come in directly and some of which are illegally imported into other European countries, re-boxed and re-labelled in false boxes, or simply put into freezers and sent here.

The National Farmers Union has carried out research in the port of Hull, for which I am grateful. Before 1992, when the port authorities were allowed to inspect all meat products, the port of Hull inspected 35,000 tonnes of meat. In 1993, after a European directive declared it illegal to inspect meat previously inspected by another member state, the port inspected 5 tonnes. So, 30,000 tonnes went through the port of Hull uninspected.

To ensure that food is safe, we rely on the good offices of other European Union countries. Although the majority no doubt enforce regulations well, some do not, and with enlargement the problem could get worse. Customs or health inspectors in countries where heavy lorries are in transit for only a few hours may not bother to carry out the inspections necessary to ensure that meat arriving at its destination is safe.

In the port of Hull inspections, considerable quantities of illegally imported meat were found such as spare ribs and pork scraps of different types. A considerable amount has also been found in Middlesborough, including chicken stock cubes, corned beef and fish products that had been transported in container lorries carrying other products—the classic method is to hide food behind a pile of vegetables. A substantial amount of illegal products is coming into this country.

What shall we do about the problem? We must end the confusion surrounding what imports are allowable. No one is suggesting that we should not be allowed to bring home shopping bought in French supermarkets—

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that would be nonsense. However, I am told that a personal allowance of 1 kg of meat products can be legally brought in from a country that has endemic foot and mouth disease, which is ridiculous and defies any sense of responsibility.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Before my hon. Friend leaves French supermarkets, does he agree that much of the meat sold in such places is produced under conditions that would not be allowed by law in this country?

Mr. Atkinson : In terms of certain support products, that may be the case. My hon. Friend has a strong interest in this issue. I do not agree wholeheartedly that the way in which meat is produced in European countries is much worse than the way in which it is produced here, with the exception of pork, where producers are still allowed to use stalls and tethers. I take my hon. Friend's point. I agree about meat products that come into Europe from non-European Union countries. Certainly, some of the conditions in which animals are brought up are way behind what we and our consumers expect. I also agree that some of the products that we buy in this country contain imported meat, particularly chicken, from countries about which there are suspicions that rearing is not up to our standards.

Perhaps the Minister would explain what has happened since May 2001, when we were promised a co-ordinated approach to improving checks at ports. We have not had an update since. It would be helpful if hon. Members heard what has happened since then. It is vital that the EU works more effectively. It is not enough to leave the matter simply to the good efforts of other European countries.

I should point out a potentially alarming development that I have noticed recently. Veterinary scientists have been considering the question of the transmission of BSE from mother to calf. I understand that transmission from one generation to the next is now ruled out. The 11 calves that developed BSE since the meat and bonemeal ban seem to have been fed contaminated food. How could that happen? As I understand it, in the EU, pigs can still be fed meat and bonemeal. That suggests that somehow there has been cross-contamination of animal feeds imported from Europe.

Meat and bonemeal may be carried in the same containers and stored in the same feed mills as other feed coming into the country. Policing that is a real problem. It is vital that we have the right to inspect food containers coming into the country much more regularly. I accept that such a right should not be used as a restraint on trade. The object of the European regulations is to stop unfair competition. I believe that, on health grounds, we need a European agreement that allows us to check our imported foodstuffs much more readily.

We should take the issue out of the hands of local authorities. It is nonsensical that the London borough of Hillingdon—I am sure that it is an efficient borough, although I know nothing about it—has responsibility to

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deal with Heathrow airport. What intelligence is shared between Heathrow airport environmental health officers and those in, for example, Southampton, Scotland, Hull or Newcastle? None. We need a centralised system, because intelligence is vital.

We will not be able to catch all the illegal foodstuffs coming into the country; that is impossible. However, we can concentrate on the people who are likely to use them. That is where intelligence should come in. The technology for checking passengers is not rocket science. In Australia, a little spaniel comes up and sniffs passengers as they wait to show their passports. That is extremely effective, but we can also get machines that test for the presence of meat products in cargos.

Those measures should be taken urgently. We cannot wait for another outbreak of foot and mouth or some other disease to strike us again. The cost was too great last time, and it will be too great if it happens again. Travel and trade enrich us both as a society and as individuals, but not if they bring with them devastation and disease, as has happened in the past.

9.43 am

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing the debate. It seems that there is good news about the suspected new outbreak at Thirsk. The initial results appear to be negative. We all hope that the next two or three days will confirm that they are negative and that we do not experience what we did in the past 12 months.

As many hon. Members know, Dumfries and Galloway was one of the worst affected areas in Scotland. It is a rural area, and was decimated by the outbreak. Agriculture plays a significantly greater role in the economy of the community than in many other parts of the UK. It provides approximately 24 per cent. of the region's gross domestic product.

There were 176 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Dumfries and Galloway, and as a result 1,300 farm businesses were directly affected by the cull policy. That led to the destruction of 18 per cent. of the cattle population and more than 30 per cent. of the sheep population. I declared from an early stage that it would take us many years to recover. Thankfully, my area is on the road to recovery, but many difficulties lie ahead.

As the hon. Member for Hexham noted, the first anniversary of the start of the outbreak was 20 February in England. It is 1 March in Scotland. The NFU on both sides of the border has been effective in raising awareness of illegal meat imports, and is justified in doing so. Issues also surround legal meat imports. There is little doubt that we should minimise as best we can the risk of diseases such as foot and mouth entering the country. We must place that high on the agenda of lessons to be learned from last year's outbreak. I am sure that the inquiries into the outbreak will consider the matter and in a time scale that will lead to those lessons being learned sooner rather than later, unlike with a lengthy public inquiry.

The Government have not been idle. I welcome the action that they have already taken to restrict illegal meat imports following the outbreak. Regrettably, much of that work has been done behind the scenes. Illegal importing is like any other smuggling operation. Control depends on effective intelligence. Government

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action not only strengthens the information-gathering procedures of enforcement bodies such as local authorities and Customs and Excise, but improves the sharing of that information between them. I hope that the Minister will outline how successful that action has been in improving the effectiveness of enforcement activity, and how it has led to improved targeting of resources to where the problem is greatest. As the hon. Member for Hexham noted, some of our busiest airports are the most suspicious locations.

One of the biggest criticisms has been that there is not enough publicity about food imports at ports and airports. Notices are not the only effective way of drawing people's attention to what they should and should not do. I therefore welcome the action that is being taken to improve the situation, as well as the work that is being done to get the message across to visitors through travel agents and our embassies overseas before they embark on their journey.

I also welcome the commissioning of a full risk assessment, which the Veterinary Laboratories Agency will carry out, and the illegal imports forum that will be held next month to consider what can be done to intensify action on illegal imports. The Government have clearly strengthened the import controls that they inherited from the previous Government.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) have made a compelling case, and I hope that the Government will consider the amendment to the Animal Health Bill. We must also consider the other aspect of the issue. Who is demanding and buying this meat? The retailer and the catering trade use it for personal consumption.

Mr. Brown : I agree. The process is about consumers and end-users. Regrettably, other people are profiting from this whole game, if I can put it in those terms. However, no one would dispute that, if more needs to be done, more should be done. The hon. Member for Hexham gave some examples, and many lessons can be learned from other countries.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister knows that each international airport in faraway New Zealand recently introduced a regime of 100 per cent. baggage search or X-ray for all arriving passengers. It would be a mammoth task here, but that does not mean that we should ignore it. We must seriously consider every opportunity that comes our way. The new X-ray machines detect any organic material, whether plant or animal, inside baggage. That is supplemented by sniffer dog teams.

I would appreciate the Minister's comments on the progress being made in the Department to consider similar action in the United Kingdom. I recognise that much hard work is being done behind the scenes to control illegal imports, but I want to give the Minister one message from the farmers in my constituency: the Government must be seen to be taking action, and that action must be seen to be effective, if we are to continue to build confidence in the agricultural industry.

There is some confusion about the divisions of responsibility for food import checks, which I hope the Minister will clarify. A number of bodies are involved in controlling imports, including the Food Standards

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Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Trade and Industry, port health authorities, the plant health and seeds inspectorate, and, as expected, Customs and Excise. Surely there is a case for a more co-ordinated approach or for bringing together many of those bodies.

There is a case for strengthening the role of the FSA so that it can be more active in checking meat imports. The repeated discovery of specified risk material in carcases of beef from Germany underlines the need for the FSA to maintain vigilance over imports.

Fifty-two weeks ago last Friday, I met representatives of my local branch of the NFU. A variety of issues were on the agenda, but the issue of legal meat imports containing SRMs, particularly beef from Germany, was raised repeatedly. I told my local farmers that it was no good telling me at a late stage, "This meat arrived and is now in the food chain." We must act early to warn people about what is happening. In fact, two or three weeks later, we saw the first indications of foot and mouth in the area. One morning, I received a telephone call from a distraught farmer whom I see regularly. He complained about SRMs in carcases from Spain and Italy.

The hon. Member for Hexham talked about end-users and consumers, and we must consider what can be done. Where will we be in a few years' time if there is a major outbreak of new variant CJD? We will all wonder where on earth it has come from. We have tightened up the way in which we conduct business in the UK, but meat imports with SRMs in carcases are clearly still entering the country.

We must consider whether the FSA can carry out far more stringent and random checks. I would even be so hard as to say that if we come across material infected with SRMs, we should have the power to close the relevant premises immediately. That should also apply to all the major supermarket chains, because they are by no means innocent in all this. A supplier must meet customer demand, but we need to tighten up the system. If supermarket chains and everyone else understand that the penalty could be immediate closure, they may be more mindful of what they bring on to their premises.

The most disconcerting aspect of last year's outbreak of foot and mouth disease was that it was not possible to establish its cause. As the hon. Member for Hexham said, there are strong suspicions that illegal meat coming into this country may have been one cause of the outbreak. The meat potentially found its way into pigswill that did not go through the proper process before it was fed to pigs.

Even if we could pin down exactly how the infected meat came into the country in the first place, zero risk from imported disease cannot be achieved, however much we wish for it. Listening to the comments of Opposition Members, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only issue we face is preventing the disease at the point of entry. The idea that import controls are a magic wand that can prevent a foot and mouth outbreak for ever is misleading. I fear that it is a cover for some hon. Members who would like to stop all meat coming from abroad.

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Mr. Peter Atkinson : The hon. Gentleman referred to Opposition Members, but I am the only one who has spoken. I was not making the point that the hon. Gentleman claims; I do not want to stop all food coming into this country. I said that intelligence was necessary to find out who was using the meat, as well as to catch it. I accept that we will not catch all the meat coming into the country.

Mr. Brown : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I apologise if I gave the wrong impression. My point is that there have been previous debates on the issue. Some hon. Members in my party would dearly love to see more severe restrictions on imports.

Two miles from where I live is a major employer, 98 per cent. of whose business is centred around lamb and sheepmeat exports. Any action to ban imports would affect export markets and thus my constituent, and would do no one any good.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this country has the right to restrict imports under article 30—the renumbered article 36 of the treaty of Rome—for the protection of the health and life of humans, animals or plants? It is on that basis—he himself has made the case—that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe action should be taken. Does he agree that that measure could be instigated at certain times?

Mr. Brown : I cannot disagree with the hon. Lady. We need to operate within the rules, directives and regulations laid down, but, regrettably, as she and other hon. Members know, some wish to take things much further.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham on securing the debate and look forward to the Minister's response to it.

9.57 am

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): Illegal imports were discussed at length during the passage of the Animal Health Bill. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) mentioned the amendments tabled by Labour Members. A striking aspect of the Second Reading debate was that Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members and those from the smaller parties all said that more must be done about illegal imports. One of the most memorable speeches in that debate was a veteran rant by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks).

There is evidence that the Government have been complacent about the matter. The Curry report and that of Devon county council flagged up the issue of illegal imports. I quoted on Report what the Minister said on Second Reading:

I do not know whether it is a coincidence that the column number is also the sign of the beast. I quoted that comment again just over a month later on 13 December. It did not seem that much had happened,

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certainly considering the Minister's answers. It is now 27 February, nearly four months later, and I have received a letter from the National Farmers Union, for which I am grateful, that says that it welcomes

Thank God for that. We have gone from interdepartmental discussions to a putative high-level forum. Presumably, if the NFU had known when the high-level forum was going to take place, it would not have used the word "probably". In other words, the Government had not even set a date, although if they have now, I would be grateful if the Minister told us today. The Government do not seem to be taking the issue seriously enough.

I have a letter, which was copied to me, from a constituent, Mr. Rod Tuck, of Diss in Norfolk to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In it he complains about the Minister. The letter says:

For the benefit of the Chamber, I have the exact quotation. The Minister said:

Mr. Tuck kindly sent me a copy of his correspondence with the US Department of the Treasury Customs Services, which contains a helpful list of the differences between the approaches of the UK and of Australia and the United States, but I will not try the Chamber's patience by listing them all.

Mr. Tuck also enclosed an e-mail that he had received from Mr. Jim Dewhirst, who had recently been to Australia. Mr. Dewhirst wrote:

This is in on arrival, not departure.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : This is all very interesting, and I should say that I was in Canada two weeks ago and the procedures were no different from those at Heathrow. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that a recent report in the Scientific and Technical Review of the OIE, which is in the public domain, calculates that illegal meat imports into the USA each year vary between 450,000 kg and 4 million kg. That is not a criticism of the USA; it just demonstrates that people should not think other parts of the world have a panacea.

The hon. Gentleman should also remember that when we had an outbreak of foot and mouth, other countries rightly introduced procedures because of the risk. My final point is that New Zealand has 3.5 million visitors a year, while Britain has 48 million. There is the issue of managing these things at airports.

Mr. Bacon : I am grateful, and indeed honoured, that I managed to provoke the Minister into intervening so early in the debate. I accept that there is no panacea; no Opposition Member believes that there is. The problems are plainly serious. The United States is a much larger country than ours with huge land borders and five times our population. I would be interested to hear comparative tonnages if the Minister has the figures. The Minister referred to New Zealand and the United States, but I was talking about Australia.

I should like to finish dealing with Mr. Dewhirst's fifth point. He states:

Mr. Dewhirst's wife—

Mr. Dewhirst may be exaggerating, but such checks on arrival—X-ray checks, sniffer dogs, taking items away in plastic bags and disinfecting them—do take place. The story shows how seriously the problem is taken there. Such measures would illustrate to people going through the system the Government's perception that travellers should take the matter more seriously. As the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) said, it is a question not just of doing things behind closed doors with curtains drawn, but of getting the message across to people that it is a serious issue. The Government say that they have put up posters and are trying to do more.

Last Friday I returned to the United Kingdom after a long-haul transatlantic flight. I landed at a Royal Air Force base at which no checks of any sort took place. Signs on the plane reminded armed forces personnel about the dangers of criminal activity with drugs, but no mention was made of animal imports. When we landed

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at the airport, I saw no posters, no customs officers and no checks. I could indeed have waltzed through with half a dead alligator.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I have written to the Minister about a leaflet that I picked up in Detroit airport, which asked me if I had visited the UK and been on a farm. It specified the UK, which doubtless does untold damage to our tourist industry. On my return to the UK, I went through the airport and searched high and low for any signs asking me whether I was bringing meat into the country. I found one, but I would not have done so had I not been pushing a pram, because it was next to the lift; disabled people may also have seen it.

Mr. Bacon : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As for writing to the Minister, I wish him luck. Many of us know that the chances of receiving a reply of any sort from DEFRA within three or four months are extremely slim. I recently wrote to a DEFRA official in Bristol in the hope that he might be able to help my constituent. I explained in the letter that there was no point in writing to Ministers. I had explained to my constituent beforehand that that was what I intended to do because I knew that at least two months would pass before I received an apology for not receiving a reply. I certainly wish my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) luck.

My hon. Friend makes a good point—the problem is not being flagged up openly enough. As a letter from the National Farmers Union makes clear:

Customs and Excise collects £102,000 million in various duties. Its primary function is obviously collecting revenue, not necessarily deciding how that revenue is spent. It is important to recognise that the resources are there if the political will is there too. There is increasing consensus across all parties about the need to do something about this matter. The political will should be there to take a firm grip on this issue.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. It is always a pleasure to see a debate being enjoyed with such enthusiasm and vigour, but there is only 20 minutes left before Front Benchers begin their winding-up speeches. Seven hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I hope that all hon. Members will bear that in mind and make their comments concise, clear and pertinent.

10.10 am

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I shall be brief as I have spoken on this subject before, and bring in some new information. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited Brussels recently and we spoke to those in the European Commission who lead consideration of the issue of meat imports. We have to recognise that we are in a common market and their approach to this governs much of ours. It was an interesting conversation that was reassuring in at least one respect: those who were concerned that disruption in Zimbabwe had not been identified by the European Commission and had not led to a different

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approach to meat imports from that country were reassured that prompt action had been taken to prevent further imports of beef from Zimbabwe in view of the risks inherent in its control systems.

Less reassuring, however, was that when the discussion moved to illegal imports, the view was firmly expressed that that was a matter for member states to pursue individually and that the European Union, while conscious of the need for robust controls, did not feel that it had any further role to play. One of the arguments that has been advanced in this debate, and that may be advanced again, is that we must act in partnership with our European neighbours on this matter. That certainly does not imply leaving the matter to Europe. The Commission clearly does not intend to take robust measures itself.

The issue of exactly what kinds of risk we are talking about has already been explored: legal imports from risky countries, the concealment of meat within shipments that are otherwise legal and the personal baggage issue. We must recognise that all we can do is limit risk. We will not eliminate it. The Minister was right to point out that even the supposedly robust controls in the United States are relatively easily circumvented by those who are determined to do so or are so ignorant that they do not notice the key pieces of information that are given to them. However, the controls in other countries are of a much higher profile and are therefore much more likely to be noticed by those who are quite innocent in the matter and have simply not grasped that they may be doing something that carries a risk to animal and possibly human health in this country.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that however many notices are put up in seaports and airports, they will not make much difference while it is still legal for individuals to bring 1 kg of meat into this country and into the European Union? We should be pressing the Minister to get the EU to abolish the rights of individuals to bring in 1 kg of meat.

Mr. Todd : I disagree. Sensibly managed personal imports are an important part of the liberty of free passage in the European Union. I do not believe that we should seek a total ban on that movement, but we should try to ensure that we police it better. Most travellers are responsible individuals who can work out the risks.

I have been through that process. I brought some salami back from Italy, which was within the weight limit. My wife questioned me about whether it was the right thing to do, but I believed that my decision was legitimate. It did not taste very nice, it made me think that I had made the wrong decision for other reasons. Most travellers are like me. We must consider the issue carefully, understand what the risks are, and be prepared to abide by sensible rules. However, we must recognise that some are ignorant of the rules or are determined to circumvent them.

It has already been shown that the regime of controls is confused. There are too many agencies. Some are ill resourced, and others lack the legislative teeth to do

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anything about the people who are caught. We have had illustrations of gross breaches of the law, for which some perpetrators have not been prosecuted. Powers do not exist to prosecute efficiently, and changes in the law are clearly required. We also need to examine resourcing. The point has been made that additional resources have not been put into Heathrow, which is a major port of entry into the country.

It is not just about money but about co-ordination and the use of information technology. I am struck by the fact that other European Union states are tackling the issue in a more co-ordinated way and making better use of the information held by the various agencies involved. I do not know of another European Union state that tackles the problem in the same diffuse way as we do. Those who use more than one agency ensure that the data is co-ordinated between the agencies so that people know what others are discovering and where the risks are. That seems to be a sensible investment of resources.

With regard to the politics of the issue, the Animal Health Bill demands that farmers take certain steps, as I said on Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) correctly identified critical issues of control in this country, which we must deal with regardless of what we do about imports. It is sensible to listen carefully to the stakeholders in these issues. The Bill in general asks farmers to co-operate, and some parts of it compel them to do so. They expect clear controls to be put in place as a quid pro quo, to some extent, for the co-operation that is being expected of them. Their expectation is legitimate. We must take a balanced approach. No one is claiming that tougher import controls make us risk free. They are part of a package that can be supported scientifically, practically and politically to achieve our objectives to make the country less at risk of animal-borne disease.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I appeal again to hon. Members for brevity. That includes resisting interventions, if at all possible.

10.17 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mentioned that I had more than a passing interest in animal welfare. I share that interest with the Minister.

I want to reinforce some issues. It has already been mentioned several times that much bush meat is smuggled illegally into this country, often by hand. It is no great secret that it is for personal use. More significantly, it is also on sale in shops, and is used in restaurants in London and elsewhere. Many of the animals are endangered and protected species. The trade is undesirable and unnecessary, and I ask the Minister to discuss with Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials and the Home Office the possibility of seeking the right to revoke the visa of anyone who brings in quantities of that sort of meat. It would be a considerable deterrent if people were warned when they went to entry clearance offices in any of our embassies or high commissions around the world, that the penalty for seeking to smuggle meat was the revocation of the visa and their immediate return to the country from whence they came. They probably would not do it.

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Animal husbandry and animal welfare are directly connected with the quality and safety of meat imports. The Minister and I have campaigned long, often and hard to raise standards of farm animal welfare in this country. I believe that we have been right to do that and will be right to continue, but we must recognise that enhanced levels of animal welfare place a considerable cost on the British farmer. If we are to require the farming community in the United Kingdom to pay greater attention to animal welfare and seek to breed calves, pigs and chickens under the highest possible standards, it is nonsense for us to allow at the same time fowl, pigmeat and beef produced under far less safe conditions to be imported into the country.

We shall not enhance animal welfare worldwide if we allow that practice to continue, but simply damage domestic trade. I urge the Minister not to seek a prohibition on imports per se, but to drive towards prohibiting the import of goods not produced under the circumstances that we have in this country. If the Minister can address those issues, particularly in the context of the Animal Health Bill, I believe that we shall make considerable progress.

10.21 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): We are all fully aware of the devastation that would be caused to our rural economy should foot and mouth disease enter the country once more. All the suggestions that I was going to make in my speech have already been made during the debate, so I will confine myself to emphasising to the Minister the importance of that issue. A tremendous amount of money was spent stopping the spread of foot and mouth from one part of the country to another, but we must also spend money to try to stop it coming into the country, and do all that we reasonably can to stop infected meat coming in.

The Animal Health Bill imposes various measures on farmers, but the Government must do their bit. I hope that the high-level forum will take place quickly and that there will be action soon. We need a commitment from the Government to act against the importation of infected meat.

10.22 am

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on obtaining this debate. It is timely, especially with the foot and mouth disease scare reported in Yorkshire yesterday.

In January this year, Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones of the university of Wales, Bangor warned that we could face another outbreak of foot and mouth disease this year unless there were a clampdown on illegal imports. I recently read the NFU report entitled, "Veterinary, Plant Health and Public Health Controls on Imports", which notes that

and that although

That report makes 17 recommendations. I shall not trouble hon. Members with them all this morning, but note only that it calls for a comprehensive review of the

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framework and resourcing of the UK's system of import controls, including an evaluation of the funding for UK import controls and clear country of origin labelling. We in Plaid Cymru, and the Scottish National party support that.

Only a few days ago, DEFRA reported the seizure of 315 kg of prohibited food at Heathrow. Apart from that, as has been noted, the deliberate importing and retailing of illegal and suspect meat is carried out by organised gangs. Hon. Members will welcome DEFRA's new striking poster. Its stark slogan is, "Keep out disease" and it notes that there are penalties of up to two years in prison and a fine of £5,000. However, that will act as a deterrent only if culprits are caught. One must note that passengers from outside the EU are still allowed to import 1 kg of meat hermetically sealed, 1 kg of fish, 1 kg of milk powder and so on. Those may be relatively small amounts, but the cumulative effect over a year would be considerable. I welcome the forum being held next month to agree further action. This is a matter of urgency.

Farmers are flexible people who can adapt; they need to be to survive the conditions of the industry at the moment. However, being flexible and adaptable does not mean closing one's eyes to an obvious source of danger. The first line of defence for animal and plant health must be an effective screen against imported disease. We need to have better co-ordination of efforts to control illegal meat imports, and more rigorous enforcement of personal imports and commercial shipments. The NFU report states that

We are looking for clear evidence that the situation is improving quickly, and I look forward to the Minister's assurance that that is the case.

10.25 am

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) for securing the debate, and share the gladness of other hon. Members that the latest potential outbreak of foot and mouth does not seem to be genuine. My constituents work for Sun Valley in Hereford city, which imports animals to a high standard from Brazil and Thailand. It is those who do not meet that standard who concern me , particularly as I am secretary of the all-party group on endangered species.

In this country, we suffer from large numbers of live animals being imported. I have considered the case at Heathrow. There are 5,500 flights a week into Heathrow airport. In 2000, only 14 of those were checked and 5.5 tonnes of illegal bush meat were found; in 2001, only 10 were checked. That is of enormous concern, not only from an animal health but a human health point of view because viruses such as ebola are very "importable". We must connect animal with human health. A criticism that the National Pig Association has drawn to my attention is that too many agencies police the import of meat into this country. We should consider tightening that up. I suggest that one regulatory body would ensure gaps did not appear.

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I looked at the potential for a bio X-ray machine. Some 25 such machines at Heathrow airport, and the staff to run them, would cost about £8 million, which is a bargain compared with the £2 billion to £4 billion that our country has spent on foot and mouth. It would cost approximately 10p per passenger coming through the airports.

I urge the Minister to think again about the 1 kg that is allowed to be imported as a personal allowance. If he did so local producers could be supported and the risk to human life reduced. I urge him to set up a commission to assess the risks of countries from which we import food, not only for our health but for a future for our farmers.

10.28 am

Matthew Green (Ludlow): I have two quick questions for the Minister. First, in an answer to a parliamentary question, he stated:

Today, I hope that he will let us know about the details of that review, and about the effect of those measures. To date, we have had no information about the effect of any of the Government measures.

My second point relates to the full risk assessment carried out by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. On 4 January, the Minister said that results would be published as soon as they were available. Can he tell us when that will be? I hope that it is soon, because such information is essential if hon. Members are to make a reasoned judgment on the effectiveness of controls that are being put in place.

10.29 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): May I make three quick points? First, in intervening on the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on the 1 kg personal allowance, I intended to make the important point that that concerns travellers coming in from third countries rather than people who move around the European Union.

Secondly, and this point has been made already, there is as much danger from legal imports as there is from illegal imports. At the moment, the chaotic state of our labelling policies allows people to re-label meat after it has been processed, which enables illegal imports into this country to be traded more easily.

Thirdly, when legal imports into this country are examined for problems, what types of tests are available? Are tests available to check meat for diseases such as foot and mouth and diseases that can affect human beings? How long do those tests take to be analysed? Can we detain meat during the time in which those tests are analysed?

10.30 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I would be failing in my duty if I were not to call the attention of the Chamber

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to the House's decision that four senior members of the Speaker's Panel should be addressed as "Deputy Speaker" in conducting proceedings in the Chamber.

Mr. Breed : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In appreciation of your calling so many hon. Members, I shall be very brief.

I want to consider two aspects of the Government's approach to the foot and mouth crisis. First, they acted urgently on certain aspects of the crisis when we learnt that there was a possible outbreak. One year ago, regulation was introduced quickly to prevent animal movements, to close footpaths, to put up notices everywhere and even to prosecute people who took their dog for a walk on the beach. Clear, prompt action was taken almost immediately and emergency procedures were put in place very quickly, although there was inevitably criticism that they were not quick enough. Most fair-minded people, however, would say that they were quickly put into action.

Secondly, on imports, we have not seen massive emergency procedures. A total ban on personal imports of meat, which could have relapsed after a period, was not considered. No significant emergency advice along the lines of that mentioned this morning was provided for travellers, and there were no prosecutions. In effect, there have been no emergency procedures for the control of imports into the country.

One year ago, at the beginning of the crisis, there was inevitably confusion about demarcation among the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, local authorities, the NFU and, eventually, the Army. In the end, however, clear lines of demarcation were established for those bodies.

Except for co-operation that takes place on a friendly basis, port authorities, Customs and Excise and trading standards report to different places. There is co-operation on the ground, but co-ordination is not laid down. Consideration clearly needs to be given to providing a regulatory system that encompassed those bodies in one co-ordinated section.

I was surprised to learn from a written answer to a parliamentary question about Zimbabwe that imports are

and it lists a huge number of different places. I have not the foggiest idea how the ban is policed, and many of the people who attempt to police it will have no idea where those provinces are. I have severe reservations about whether it can be policed properly.

Finally, I shall mention regulation and legislation. Many of us have been through the Animal Health Bill and it is clear that the provisions are draconian, particularly for farmers. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) recognised the Government's responsibility to respond to that. Has any consideration been given to amending the Products of Animal Origin (Import and Export) Regulations 1996? Evidence suggests that they should be reinforced, but there is no sign of that being done. Instead of reciprocal arrangements on imports, the Animal Health Bill was introduced to plug the gaps and clobber farmers again.

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Other than those directly involved, the general public want uniformed security staff at ports. We are an island nation and should be able to control imports better than countries with land borders. We need a combined security force that recognises the importance of not allowing the import of drugs and other products, including meat and plants.

We all have our own experience of the USA and I shall explain mine. I was behind a fairly elderly lady who had not filled in her form properly. She was caught with something—I do not know what—and whisked off. The Customs officer next to me said that it was sad because it was unlikely that she would be allowed back into the country to visit relatives, even if she had inadvertently filled in the form wrongly. The provision is severe: she may be refused entry because she made an illegal statement. That is draconian and I do not suggest that we go down that road, but it emphasises that other countries treat the problem more urgently and seriously than we have apparently done in the past year.

10.36 am

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for guiding us through this debate and for calling 11 hon. Members, which is excellent during a one-and-a-half-hour debate. I only wish that our debate could continue all morning because many hon. Members wanted to speak for longer and some have not been called.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing a debate on this important issue. In his comprehensive speech, he set the tone for the contributions that followed and pointed out that we have had two damaging incidents of animal disease: classical swine fever and then foot and mouth disease. The foot and mouth epidemic started in his constituency but we are crossing our fingers and hoping that it ended in his constituency some time ago. The news this morning is hopeful; the case in the Ryedale constituency may not be positive.

There are two sets of imports. Illegal imports can introduce disease that threatens animals and humans. I do not want to introduce barriers to trade, but it is ridiculous that in this country we place on our producers responsibilities and high standards that are not always followed in other countries from which we import produce. That important issue should be addressed.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and another hon. Member, if we had honesty in labelling we could market United Kingdom-produced food more positively. The two sectors that sin most are the catering sector and the processing sector, which sells it products mainly through the four great supermarkets in this country, which control 80 per cent. of food sales.

Although those points may not be absolutely relevant, they are worth making. However, the illegal import of meat causes the greatest concern. Many hon. Members have referred to the large amount of bush meat that is imported illegally. Two London traders have been prosecuted for selling it. Last May a trader in Dalston, north-east London and his girlfriend were jailed for selling the meat of an endangered African monkey species. He boasted that he could import chimpanzee meat or even a whole lion carcase from

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Nigeria for £5,000. He was sentenced to four months' imprisonment for selling parts of a tantulus monkey. He told the court that many African shops in Britain sell bush meat.

In September another London trader was given a conditional discharge after being found with the carcases of 11 monkeys and two anteaters. Although it is not the Minister's responsibility, such sentencing is utterly inadequate. I could make many suggestions that would ensure that people who undertook that trade were severely punished and, if necessary, deported.

Border inspections are critical. It has been pointed out that as an island nation we should be better placed to protect our people and animals from the importation of disease. Border inspections are lamentable, both at airports and seaports. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham referred to Heathrow and I have an interest in Manchester airport as it is close to my constituency. Few hon. Members mentioned seaports, where there is a huge opportunity to smuggle illegal meats and other products in containers. We cannot quantify that problem at this stage. We have a vague idea of what is entering in personal baggage through the main airports, but I believe that a gigantic amount is coming in through seaports. What is being discovered is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The Government must introduce effective measures. We accept that we will not catch everything, but we must try to be effective. We must use scanning equipment where appropriate and low technology in the form of sniffer dogs. I went behind the scenes at Heathrow last week, with permission of course, and saw luggage being unloaded and brought into the passenger halls. There is ample opportunity for scanning equipment to be used at that point before the passengers pick up their luggage.

Scanning machines cost about £180,000. I understand that they can be fixed to test for drugs, meat or other products. [Interruption.] The Minister does not believe that that is so but I believe that it could be done. Rather like speed cameras, especially those in Staffordshire, the county next to mine, they would act as a deterrent. They are mobile. We all naturally obey the speed limit because we do not know when we will be caught. Scanning equipment should be moved. There does not have to be one on every single luggage—

Mr. Russell Brown : Carousel.

Mrs. Winterton : Carousel. I thank the hon. Gentleman. The scanning equipment could be behind the scenes and used before the luggage reaches the carousel. The machines could be moved about. One would not need to invest vast amounts of money to be much more effective. Sniffer dogs are probably more cost effective. They should circulate with their handlers in the passenger halls to act as a deterrent and a reminder.

I am ashamed to tell the Minister, but when I entered the customs hall at the very end to watch customs officers check baggage I did not notice the two posters. I was not a passenger and I was there for a different purpose, but I did not notice them. That is not much of a deterrent. Surely, as in other countries, we should get passengers entering this country to sign a declaration. That concentrates the mind.

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When I go to America, I am careful to ensure that I fill in and sign the form properly. That reminds me each time that if I have an apple in my overnight baggage, I should dispose of it or eat it quickly. We need more deterrence to ensure that people are aware of the dangers of importing meat and other products.

When the customs hall at Heathrow emptied, I could see how big it was. It was full of packages from a recent raid, to which other hon. Members have referred. Some packages were seeping blood. It is disgusting that that practice is allowed to continue and that customs officers and others have to handle such material, with all the dangers of contamination and so on.

A major issue is the need to co-ordinate the regulatory authorities and have one body in overall control. The Government must tackle the problem robustly—just posters will not do. However, we have not seen what else the Government have done in the year since the first outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham. We know that risk can only be limited, but the subject does not have the high profile that it needs.

As I said, the penalties for organised crime must be severe. An import for personal consumption of salami from Italy is not as risky as the same amount of bush meat, which threatens human and animal health. That point was well made.

In the year since the outbreak of the foot and mouth epidemic, very little action has been taken or is perceived, particularly by hard-hit farming and rural communities. I make no apology for repeating that we need a full and independent public inquiry to build trust between the Government and rural communities. The three inquiries that the Government set up, one of which has reported, will not fit the bill. Time is of the essence in one way, but we must get to the truth, and people must be able to have confidence that we have got to the truth. We need to know the cause of the disease and what went wrong in the handling of it.

People are feeling vulnerable again because of the news that we heard yesterday, although today's is relatively good. They need to know what contingency plan is in place to deal with any further outbreak. Will it be more effective than the last one? We were assured that there was a contingency plan, but it did not seem to be a meaningful one to anyone in the farming community.

Will the testing be quicker and more accurate? What consideration have the Government given to the use of vaccine in any future outbreak? Slaughter on the scale that we have witnessed will never be tolerated again. Is sufficient vaccine available in the United Kingdom? Has a contingency plan been drawn up for its use if the Government have decided to use it? What action can they take to reassure British consumers of the truth, which is that milk and meat from vaccinated stock are perfectly wholesome and safe to consume?

What action are the Government taking with partner states in the European Union to ensure that, in the event of another outbreak, barriers do not come down against our exports if we use vaccines? The example that stands out is the French ban on our beef because of BSE, which

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is on going and causing damage. Again, if there were honesty in labelling, some of these issues might be covered.

The debate is taking place because, for the second time since the second world war, we have imported animal disease in the form of foot and mouth. It has caused devastation not only of the farming community but of rural businesses, including bed-and-breakfast establishments, pubs, post offices, shops, equestrian facilities and many others.

It must be stressed that the illegal importation of meat puts at risk not only animal but human health. We have not yet seen one of those incidents and, frankly, I hope that I do not live long enough to see one. If we view foot and mouth as devastating for animals, how much worse would it be if a disease outbreak affected the human population? I beg the Government to act quickly.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing the debate. He delivered his points extremely well. It is important to pay careful attention to our border posts, to measures for protecting consumers, and to preserving animal, plant and indeed human health.

We must keep matters in perspective. It is perfectly legitimate for the National Farmers Union to campaign on the issue of illegal imports and I make no criticism of any contributions to today's debate, which have all been perfectly reasonable and legitimate. However, the issue of keeping matters in proportion remains.

The Government believe that the measures in place in the UK are comparable with those of any other country. That is not to say that we should be complacent or that we cannot improve them. I shall soon outline the contributions that we have made over the past year. I was surprised to hear that some hon. Members were unaware of those measures, which may partly be the Government's fault. It is particularly useful to have an imports forum to discuss what measures are in place, what further measures we may be able to take, and what measures are or will prove effective.

A risk assessment is crucial, which is why we commissioned the Veterinary Laboratories Agency to conduct a proper assessment, which will take about six months. It will examine the probability of undetected illegal imports coming into this country and estimate the scale—

Mr. Bacon : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley : In a moment. It will assess the probability of infections with a class A animal disease.

It is right to confront the issue of illegal imports, but we cannot use it as a diversion from other disease control measures. No hon. Member speaking in the debate has tried to do that, but some in the wider community always look for simplistic answers or a scapegoat—and the favourite scapegoat is illegal imports.

We know where the disease started, but I cannot say too much about a particular farm, which, as the hon. Member for Hexham is aware, is subject to criminal

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proceedings. I cannot comment specifically, but if regulations had been followed on the farm, we may never have had the outbreak in the first place. That should also be taken into account. We should also reflect on how the disease spread and the measures needed to stop it. As all hon. Members who have spoken acknowledge, when dealing with illegal activities, it is never possible to provide a 100 per cent. guarantee of stopping disease. That is why we need contingency plans on how best to prevent disease spread.

I say in all seriousness to all hon. Members present, including my hon. Friends, that it would be easy to spend an awful lot of extra money and resources on import controls without significantly reducing risk. We must assess the risks carefully and establish where best to apply our resources. We must think that through. I am sure that hon. Members would not disagree.

I must correct the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) on standards of imports. Legal imports, even from countries with endemic foot and mouth disease, have never been associated with disease spread of any sort because they have to pass through strict controls—deboning of beef, for example—and only certain regions are accepted. We utilised provisions under the OIE regulations to get our exports going again in certain parts of the country that were effectively foot and mouth free, even though some regions were officially under control. We were confident that our exports were safe, secure, properly regulated and measured. That should also be taken into account.

In respect of imports, I do not disagree with the point made by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) about standards, but there are common EU standards for meat production, slaughterhouses and cutting plants, which apply to everyone and which the EU enforces. It is true that some of our standards of production are higher than those of the EU, which is right. We need to explore issues such as labelling and consumer choice.

Hon. Members acknowledged that we have increased publicity in ports of entry. There are new posters and leaflets, and travellers who apply to British embassies for a visa are given information explaining the regulations. There is an argument that we should make the posters bigger and bolder to increase awareness. A point was made about perception—being seen to do things—which is important. We are planning a pilot scheme with dogs trained to sniff out meat. A handler is undertaking training at present. Given the number of passengers going through Heathrow, we do not know how effective the scheme will be, but it is not unreasonable to try it out. The biggest benefit may be the visual impact, which I do not underestimate.

The law has been changed to strengthen enforcement powers to make it easier for local authorities to take action on meat that may have been illegally imported. Environmental health officers' powers have also been

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strengthened, which will affect inland catering outlets. We are considering whether we can strengthen the Products of Animal Origin (Import and Export) Regulations 1996 and make them more effective; work is being done on the matter now.

Seizures have increased. In the year to 31 March 2001, 2.7 tonnes of illegal meat were seized. Since April 2001, there have been 1,076 seizures of illegal animal products—an estimated 46 tonnes of illegal meat. More checking is being carried out, and there have been more seizures. We are not complacent about the work that needs to be done.

We are considering the issue of personal imports. Some serious matters were raised, including the point about baby food, which people may need when they travel. Baby food is processed and sealed and it is not a problem.

The regulations state that the 1 kg allowance should be cooked meat, hermetically sealed. That is the EU standard, which minimises the risk. As the risk is largely from other illegal products, it would not necessarily be reduced if we did not have that EU standard. It is a serious matter, which we are discussing with the Commission.

We are talking to airlines about producing in-flight videos that can be shown to people travelling to this country telling them what they can and cannot bring into the UK. Landing and boarding cards have been amended in respect of declarations.

As I said earlier, a scheme that uses sniffer dogs is being considered. We are also considering using X-rays, but although some are quite sophisticated and can detect organic matter, X-rays are designed to show bones, not meat. There is thus a genuine doubt about whether X-ray machines are effective. However, there may be a role for a skilled operator with a more sophisticated machine; we do not rule it out.

We accept that we cannot entirely reduce the risk of illegal activity, but we are strengthening the regulations. As the hon. Member for Congleton said, there have been two prosecutions of people who imported bush meat, one of which resulted in jail sentences. They are the first prosecutions for that offence. I accept the point that was made by the hon. Member for North Thanet about the environmental impact and the undesirability of the trade. I will certainly bear in mind his point about visas and whether we can strengthen enforcement. Time does not allow me to continue with all the points, but I want to emphasise that we are taking the issue seriously. We have taken a great deal of action, we intend to strengthen the law and we will ensure that what we do is public. We should perhaps do more to make public what we have already done, but it must be borne in mind that border controls are just one aspect of disease control. We must examine disease control in the round to ensure that we minimise risk in our country. I believe that we are doing that.

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