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1 May 2002 : Column 950

Speaker's Statement

3.32 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have carefully considered the important matters raised on Monday by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) concerning evidence obtained for the Lockerbie trial. I must inform him that acts by prosecuting authorities in Scotland are devolved matters for which no Minister in the House bears responsibility. I am sure, however, that those responsible will have noted the matters that he raised in his point of order.

The Table Office will, of course, offer any assistance to the hon. Gentleman about any international aspects of the Lockerbie case which may fall within the responsibility of United Kingdom Ministers.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I thank you and your advisers for the care that you have given to this complex matter? Is not part of the difficulty the imprecisions that were not addressed on the passage of the Scotland Act 1998? Is there not an important matter of principle, however? When there is a long report from Dr. Hans Koechler, who was appointed by Kofi Annan for the United Nations, should not the subject of that report—the conduct of the trial—also be a matter for the House of Commons? After all, United Nations matters are surely matters for Westminster and not for the Mound.

Mr. Speaker: I have nothing to add to my statement.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have a constituent, Dr. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the dreadful Lockerbie incident, and who feels very concerned about these matters. Could you advise me on how I can best represent his interests, as I am a Member of this Parliament but not of the Scottish Parliament? Could you give Members such as me advice on that?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady will note that I said in the last paragraph of my statement that the Table Office will give any assistance that it can on this matter.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are there not constitutional implications affecting the position of the House of Lords as the supreme court in this country? Would you be prepared to reflect on that point and speak to the House again?

Mr. Speaker: This matter was the subject of a criminal trial and there would be no appeal to the House of Lords on that.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the points that have been made, led by the Father of the House, may I register the fact that I am the constituency Member representing Mrs. Ann Mann, whose brother, his wife and their two children—the whole family—were killed in that dreadful disaster? By your ruling, there is now a serious issue as to whether I have the powers of representation—

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as the constituency Member in the national Parliament of the United Kingdom—that I would expect on behalf of any constituent in the privilege of Parliament.

Mr. Speaker: We all feel for the relatives of the Lockerbie victims and our hearts go out to them. The hon. Gentleman can continue to represent Mrs. Mann. The Table Office and any Officer of the House will seek to give as much assistance as possible to help the relatives of Lockerbie victims who live in any Member's constituency.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, and to the point raised by the Father of the House. My constituent, Martin Cadman, lost his beloved son on that flight and he is very concerned by Dr. Hans Koechler's report. Mr. Cadman is anxious for me to initiate an Adjournment debate in the House. If I apply for an Adjournment debate, will it be in order, given your earlier ruling?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman should apply for the Adjournment debate. He will not get the debate unless he asks for it. If his Adjournment debate is against the rules of the House, I will not be able to grant it. However, if it is within the rules of the House, he stands a good chance of securing it.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): On a separate and much simpler point of order, Mr. Speaker. A week ago, I tabled 14 questions to the Home Office about specific matters relating to immigration. Two of the questions were subsequently transferred to the Lord Chancellor's

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Department, and I have no quarrel with that. I asked the questions specifically for a named day—yesterday—and I gave the Home Office six working days to answer the questions when I could have given it just three.

Twelve of the answers came back to me last night, and all of them contained the words, "I will reply as soon as possible." I have spoken to the Home Office and I have let it know that I believe that to be wholly unsatisfactory. The Home Office has apologised for the lack of answers, but I raise this point of order because answering parliamentary questions is not a voluntary option for Departments or Ministers. A named day is specified so that Members receive replies on that day. Will you, Mr. Speaker, be good enough to say, at the very least, that it is your wish that Ministers answer parliamentary questions on the day they are due?

Mr. Speaker: I am very keen that all Back Benchers should receive proper replies that are delivered in decent time. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will look into his complaint and I will reply to him.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Further to the point of order raised by the Father of the House, Mr. Speaker. Are we, in effect, being told that there are functions of the Crown in this country that we cannot refer to a responsible Minister in this national Parliament?

Mr. Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Scotland Act 1998 went through the House and there are devolved matters. I refer him to the last paragraph of my statement. On any question or matter that he wishes to raise, he is entitled to seek the assistance of Officers of the House.

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Port Protection Authority

3.39 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I beg to move,

The purpose of the Bill is to strengthen import controls at sea ports and airports by simplifying the structures and making the lines of accountability more transparent. There is much public concern about the control of imports into the United Kingdom. Large quantities of drugs, tobacco, alcohol and meat are smuggled into Britain each year. The current system of import control is complex and involves a number of different agencies, including Customs and Excise, which is responsible to the Treasury, trading standards departments, which are a local authority function, and port health authorities, which are local authorities in their own right.

The arrangements have evolved for historic reasons and do not meet the challenges of modern trading practices. Port health authorities, for instance, were originally established to keep out human diseases such as plague and cholera, but are now mainly responsible for food imports of animal origin. There are no port health authorities at our airports and they operate in only some sea ports. Local authorities take over those duties in the authority's absence. For instance, three different local authorities are involved at Heathrow airport because the various warehouses and buildings are situated in different authority areas. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for imports of food stuffs of non-animal origin, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for meat and food stuffs of animal origin.

All those bodies have different powers of enforcement and function. The complexity is immense. Naturally, Customs and Excise is mainly concerned with the collection of import duties and discovering illegal drugs. Other illegal imports are of a lower priority, yet Customs and Excise is the authority with the greatest power to stop, search and detain goods.

The volume of contraband entering the country poses a real threat to the health and wealth of the people of Britain. Evasion of duty on tobacco and alcohol puts at risk the viability of our pubs and shops. At the same time, the Treasury is losing millions in revenue each year. Illegal food imports can have very damaging effects on human and animal health. I am not criticising the people in those agencies who are battling to stem the tide of illegal imports, but current structures mean that although some responsibilities overlap, there is a lack of coverage in other areas. There is also the problem of agencies sharing intelligence in the fast moving world of imports and exports.

There is reason to believe that the number of personnel involved in this work has been reduced. What is needed is a simpler structure with sufficient resources to collect more of the duty that is being lost and to prevent the importation of diseases such as foot and mouth into this country, which cost our taxpayers more than £4 billion.

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Owing to the time constraints, I shall concentrate on illegal meat and food imports. They raise three serious concerns and consequences: first, the danger to human health; secondly, the danger to the health of domestic and wild animals; and, thirdly, the possible effect on endangered species as a result of the importation of bush meat and wildlife. The potential for damage to human health is enormous—damage from a number of exotic viral diseases such as Ebola, simian immune deficiency virus, monkey pox and the Nipah virus, all of which are possibly transmitted from animals and meat to human beings. Other more common pathogens, such as E.coli and salmonella, could be present in imported meat, particularly chicken, and even on some salad crops.

Many non-European Union countries have production systems that involve animal welfare standards, antibiotics, other drugs and insecticides that are not allowed in this country. Some of the residues are harmful to human health. Even EU countries have been found exporting food to us that contains specified risk material, such as spinal cord in beef carcases that could be infected with the BSE prion, which in turn could go on to cause new variant CJD in humans. All those risks are substantial and need to be monitored. Some meat is imported illegally, with forged documentation and false health stamps, while other consignments are hidden in non-food containers or containers of fruit or vegetables.

I turn now to animal health risks. Although it cannot be claimed for certain, it is highly likely that foot and mouth disease entered this country through some type of imported food. It is only one example of how this country suffers during an epidemic, and it shows how vulnerable we are to such diseases. Foot and mouth is only one such disease; there are many others, including classical swine fever and sheep pox.

There are many theories about how such diseases could enter the country. One idea is that they may enter in waste food from airports and ships, but there is already a requirement to destroy such waste rather than feeding it to pigs as swill, and since foot and mouth the feeding of swill to pigs has been made illegal. Many suspect that diseases are introduced by individuals bringing food into the country, and I shall refer to bush meat imports in a moment. At present, it is legal for an individual to bring in 1 kg of cooked meat in an hermetically sealed container. Many travellers do not understand the law and bring in much more than that, and sometimes the law is deliberately flouted.

Most countries have far stricter regulations on individual travellers than we do, and they undertake far more stringent surveillance. People entering those countries have to sign a declaration and deposit any food in waste containers. Britain has a far more lax approach, and lacks the resources to implement the regulations that we do have.

Bush meat imports are definitely on the increase, with an estimated 1,000 tonnes of illegally imported meat entering the UK each year. Bush meat gives rise to all three problems that I have identified. It is a threat to human health; it is a threat to animal health; and it is a threat to vulnerable species in danger of extinction, including species of monkey, leopard, antelope, porcupine, and chimpanzee and the great apes. Bush meat is subject to no health standards in its country of origin, and it is very often brought into the UK by couriers in domestic luggage without any refrigeration or consideration for hygiene. The effects on

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the animal population and on human health are potentially devastating. I may mention here the campaign against bush meat and live imports by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner).

More and more goods, including meat and other food, are being traded across the world. Britain imports 50 per cent. of its food. It is the duty and responsibility of our Government to protect our people from disease and inferior quality products. The present complex arrangement is failing to achieve an acceptable level of protection. A new single-purpose authority, adequately resourced, would not only raise additional sources of revenue but protect this country from the worst threats of disease. It would not curtail trading, which is so important to us, but would increase the confidence of consumers and customers, so trade would be enhanced.

I welcome the recent Government action plan on meat imports, but there remains the problem of which body or bodies will enforce it. The only sensible solution is to set up a single body to take responsibility for activities in air and sea ports. It should report annually on its effectiveness to a combined Select Committee representing all those with an interest in the body.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Williams, Lembit Öpik, Mr. David Heath, Matthew Green, Albert Owen, Mr. Simon Thomas, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Colin Breed and Mr. Alan Reid.

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