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House of Commons

Thursday 16 May 2002

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Development Agency Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 23 May.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Illegal Imports

1. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What recent steps she has taken to prevent the passage of illegally imported meat and plants at United Kingdom sea ports and airports. [55113]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): On 21 March I hosted a forum on illegal imports at which all key interests were represented, including farmers, the food industry and enforcement agencies. Subsequent discussions agreed the range of measures included in the detailed action plan, published on 28 March, to reduce the risk of exotic animal and plant disease. That plan included commitments to, for example, giving enforcement officers new powers to search luggage for illegal imports of meat and improving co-operation between agencies. We are pursuing the action plan as a matter of priority.

Mr. Winterton: The dairy and livestock industries of our country were devastated last year by foot and mouth, which is thought to have entered the country in imported meat or meat products. The countryside and farming remain in crisis. What action is the Secretary of State prepared to take following the recently reported comments of Professor Peter Smith, chairman of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, one of the Government's own bodies, who warned that imported meat products such as pâtés and sausages could contain BSE or other diseases because they are not subject to the same stringent controls as meat produced in this country?

Margaret Beckett: I have not seen Professor Smith's comments. We have strict controls on meat imports. I will not list them, but all consignments of fresh meat are subject to veterinary inspection, and various documentary

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and physical checks are applied. If Professor Smith has evidence to suggest that there are problems with those checks, of course we will look into it. We are taking steps to strengthen the controls and their enforcement, and we are also carrying out a substantial risk assessment to guide us to where we should put further and more effective measures if those are required.

It will always be the case, however, that we cannot reduce risk to zero. We have to reduce it to the lowest possible level, however. We also have to ensure that arrangements are in place to tackle disease outbreaks, should they occur. It is a twin-sided problem and it has to be a twin-sided approach.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Five growth stimulants are banned under European Union directives because they are considered to have an adverse effect on the food chain. What action is taken to ensure that there is a level playing field when it comes to imports, so that we can be sure that those growth stimulants have not been used on poultry or other meat products imported to this country?

Margaret Beckett: There is no special regime for growth hormones, as I am sure my hon. Friend accepts, but there is a regime for control of material for human consumption that comes into this country. That depends heavily on local authority inspection and controls, and every effort is made to ensure that those controls are effective. The enforcing authorities do watch out for the use of growth hormones.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Can the Secretary of State assure us that meat plants outside the United Kingdom are subjected to the same level of random and notified inspections as our meat plants, to ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained at all times?

Margaret Beckett: Obviously there are slightly different arrangements depending on whether the plant in question is elsewhere in the European Union or in a third country. There certainly are stringent checks, however. With regard to third countries, the European Commission's food and veterinary office is responsible for carrying out such inspections. Within the European Union, there is a common regime, of which Britain is a part.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is futile to expect any Government to seal our borders? In spite of the strenuous and expensive efforts made by Governments, they have all seen a huge increase in contraband—cigarettes, alcohol and illegal drugs—flowing into this country. It is impossible to ensure that no infected meat gets through. If there is another outbreak of foot and mouth, or some other disease, surely the best way to combat it is by restricting unnecessary animal movements and by the judicious use of vaccination?

Margaret Beckett: All the issues that my hon. Friend raises about controlling disease once it is detected are kept under careful consideration. On his opening remark, I fear that he is correct. As I told the hon. Member for

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Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), it is not possible to devise a regime that can eliminate all risk. It is a case of reducing that risk to the lowest possible level.

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point about the flow of meat and other products within the European Union. Under single market rules, there are not routine checks of every consignment. However, there are random and non-discriminatory spot checks, which are carried out at the place of destination.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Secretary of State is right to say that we cannot eliminate risk. However, anyone who has travelled to the United States, Australia or New Zealand, for example, knows that there is a huge gulf between the precautions taken in those countries to minimise the risk of illegal imports and the precautions that are taken in the United Kingdom. Does the right hon. Lady understand that it is a matter not only of powers, important as they may be, but of diligence and commitment on the part of the Government to try to ensure that people understand fully that they should not be bringing in the produce, and that if they do so they will be detected and stopped?

Margaret Beckett: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but, the circumstances in the countries to which he has referred are different. I am not entirely sure whether there is as great a discrepancy in the precautions that we take as there is in publicity. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that we are doing what we can to increase public attention, and I hope that we will continue to do more.

There may not be the same gap in enforcement as there is in perception. We are continuing to discuss with airlines, for example, whether there is more that can be done in terms of travellers, whether at the place where they board, during the flight, or whatever. We are having discussions with other transport operators. They were all part of the discussions that took place at the general meeting that I held.

There is a major difference between us and the countries to which the hon. Gentleman referred. If he thinks of his experience, information and guidance for travellers is often given through the completion of a landing card. But European Union travellers, including British citizens, do not have to fill out landing cards. We are discussing with the airlines whether there is a procedure that can be adopted. We could not introduce landing cards per se without primary legislation.

Many of the other players are not keen to take further action, which would be costly and involve a good deal of work for them. Risk assessment is the key to getting their co-operation, if we conclude following that assessment that further action is needed. I hope that we shall obtain that co-operation in the not too distant future.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): The Department's Minister in the Lords has said that last year, despite the devastation wrought by the foot and mouth outbreak, there were only three prosecutions for offences involving illegal meat imports. Why does the right hon. Lady think the total was so low?

Margaret Beckett: I would have to examine individual cases. There is the issue of whether controls and

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operations should be directed primarily at enforcement or prosecution. There is scope for prosecutions, and such prosecutions occur from time to time, not least of commercial importers.

The reasons for the risk assessment are twofold. One is to determine whether the greatest risk comes from commercial imports that are illegal, or from individual imports. The second is to ascertain exactly how we can best target the enforcement that we undertake.

Perhaps the few prosecutions that take place are evidence of successful deterrence and detection more than anything else. We agree and accept that it is important to keep the right balance. I shall now do what I should have done at the outset, and welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Lidington: I thank the right hon. Lady for her kind remarks. I place on record my appreciation of the work done on this brief by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton).

Surely more than 12 months after the foot and mouth outbreak started, the right hon. Lady should realise that when we have more than 800 seizures of illegal imported meat and only three prosecutions, when the Department's Minister in the Lords is admitting that since the outbreak of foot and mouth disease no additional resources have been allocated for meat import controls at Heathrow airport, and when responsibility for controls and checks on meat imports is still divided between six different public agencies, it is hardly a surprise that the Department, in the view of farmers, especially livestock farmers, has become a byword for delay and incompetence.

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that his question may be based on a misapprehension. I do not have the detailed answer given by my noble Friend in the House of Lords, but I have now turned up the figures on prosecutions and think that the hon. Gentleman may be referring to prosecutions for trade in endangered species, which also involves illegal meat imports and is a completely separate matter.

Mr. Lidington indicated dissent.

Margaret Beckett: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, from memory, I am not aware that there is any evidence of imports of things like bush meat, wrong as they are and much as we must stamp them out, leading to outbreaks of animal disease. However, I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that there are two sides—

Mr. Lidington: It is in Hansard.

Margaret Beckett: Well, with great respect, the fact that the hon. Gentleman has it on paper does not mean that it is right. My figures on the three prosecutions in the past year are specifically for international trade in endangered species. Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right that there is a diversity—if he likes, a plethora—of agencies

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dealing with those issues, but that regime was not introduced by this Government. We are dealing with the issue as we find it.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Blame it on someone else.

Margaret Beckett: I was not blaming the previous Government; I was simply making a statement. The fact is, the Conservatives presided over the regime of divided responsibilities that we have inherited. We are doing more to give effective powers, for example, to local authority inspectors—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady's reply is far too long. I call Mr. Chaytor.

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