Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 102-119)




  102. I am very pleased to welcome representatives of the Association of Port Health Authorities. I think, Mr Bloomfield, you are the full-time official.
  (Mr Bloomfield) No, I am actually an honorary under-secretary. The Executive Secretary, Peter Rotheram is unable to be here today because of ill-health, so I am taking his place.

  103. Would you like to introduce your colleagues?
  (Mr Bloomfield) Certainly. On my far left is Mike Young, who is Head of Environmental Services, Crawley Borough Council, and is therefore responsible for Gatwick Airport. Mike is also Secretary of the Association's Airport Liaison Committee. On my immediate left is Jon Averns, who is Port Health Services Director for the Corporation of London and is therefore responsible for all of the River Thames up to Teddington Lock from the sea, and responsible for Tilbury, Thamesport and London City Airport. I am Doug Bloomfield, I am Head of Port Health for Suffolk Coast District Council and responsible for Felixstowe, which is the biggest container port in the UK. I am also Honorary Secretary of the Association.

  104. We have had some very helpful evidence from the Port of London Authority. Perhaps we could start at that point. One of the things, I think, that it is quite important to do is to try and get a grip on the scale of the problem. In your evidence you talk about the amount of illegal imports that you have discovered. Something I am finding difficult is to try and understand the scale of illegal meat imports. I just wonder if you could give us your feelings on that.
  (Mr Averns) Certainly. As far as London Port Health Authority is concerned there are two separate issues here. One is the sea ports, and, as Doug said, we cover Thamesport and Tilbury, which are both large container ports. The seizures we have had there, at Thamesport, in particular relate to products from the Far East. We have had seizures of Chinese hams—only a small number of seizures but the ones we have had, we have had about three tonnes or something like that. Our other problem is at London City Airport, where we get passengers who transit from other countries and they are carrying illegal products, or smuggling products in. We get 100 to 200 passengers stopped each year with a range of items. We have prepared some information for you which gives details not only for London but also for Gatwick, Felixstowe and some of the other ports, to try and give an indication of what has been going on in the last year. I think you will probably find that useful.

  105. That would be helpful, thank you. What would also be helpful is to try and find out what has been happening over the last year. What is your impression? Is this a problem that is growing, or getting less, or is it because there is more focus or more publicity about the issue that people think it is a bigger problem?
  (Mr Averns) Perhaps if I start with London, certainly I do not believe the problem has diminished at all in London in the last year. Certainly as far as London City Airport is concerned, we have had the same sort of level of seizures. Yes, we have stepped up our surveillance slightly but I do not think there has been any noticeable decrease in the number of people trying to smuggle in. Likewise, at the sea ports, they are still trying to get items through there.

  106. Would that be the same for Gatwick?
  (Mr Young) Yes, that would be. We do not really see that there has been any decrease in the amount of illegal products that are being brought in, either in air freight or in passenger baggage. I think the events over the last twelve months have probably put a spotlight on the issue . We have undertaken a number of specific exercises in co-operation with Customs, targeting particular flights, and have had seizures from passengers on all the flights that we targeted.

  107. How many flights have you targeted, Mr Young, during this calendar year?
  (Mr Young) Chairman, in the period 31 March 2001 to 30 March 2002 we undertook 30 special operations where we had staff with in the green Customs channel with Customs officers. We were targeting specific flights in those 30 operations—normally only one flight per operation but as you can imagine with a busy airport sometimes you do pick up passengers off other flights.

Mr Mitchell

  108. Is that on a haphazard basis, or on the basis of information received?
  (Mr Young) It was on the basis of information received and experience, yes.


  109. So, typically, from West African countries?
  (Mr Young) From Gatwick it was African countries, yes. However, I have to say that that is because of the nature of aviation, where flights from Asia, for example, go into Heathrow. So we would not be targeting those. During those 30 operations we did detect 257 passengers carrying products of animal origin illegally. The total weight amounted to just over 2.75 tonnes. I should also hasten to add that when you only have a team of six staff doing checks, the minute you stop six people and are searching you are then missing many more passengers, of whom you do not know how many are carrying stuff or not.

Mr Mitchell

  110. So somebody on every `plane?
  (Mr Young) I believe I am right in saying that for every operation we mounted we found at least one person.


  111. The situation at sea ports is slightly different?
  (Mr Bloomfield) You are correct in that. Last year we found 112 consignments that were smuggled—not brought in through the legal channels and things that we consider smuggled. They range from everything from antler powder through to ham.

Mr Martlew

  112. We went to Heathrow and we had a look in the cold store and there were quite a few products that had been confiscated because they were over the limit; they had them for their own personal use but they did not seem to be particularly harmful—I am talking about tinned dried milk powder, tins of meat, tins of evaporated milk. Is that included in your total or is it just, basically, meats that you are talking about when you talk about the tonnage that you have collected?
  (Mr Young) The majority is probably fish and fisheries products, rather than meat, but there are significant amounts of meat and some milk products in there as well. When we do the seizure it is not based on any risk of harm, it is simply that it is illegal to bring the products in.

  113. So if they are over their personal allowance, for example, that would go into the pile and be weighed?
  (Mr Young) That is correct.

  114. So it is not necessarily foods that are being brought into the country that are dangerous that are in this stockpile?
  (Mr Young) As I say, we do not make any assessment of whether there is any danger in them, it is the fact that they are illegal and we are there with the duty to control illegal imports.

  115. So if you bring in one tin of milk that is fine, but if you are bringing in ten that is smuggling?
  (Mr Young) That is correct, yes.

Mr Mitchell

  116. How is it smuggled in ports? Does it come in as part of a container consignment, is it in the crew's gear?
  (Mr Bloomfield) It generally comes in a container, either manifested as something that it is not—ie, it could be a meat product but it could be manifested as biscuits or not listed at all. So you could have a packing list for a container that would cover, for example, 1200 cartons and you might find there are in fact 1300, and the other 100 things would be illegal imports.


  117. If you find someone on every flight, for example, why do you not check them all?
  (Mr Young) It is simply a question of resources, Chairman. For the teams of six that I have been using to undertake these checks, it is fortunate in some ways because the times of the flights are normally at about six in the morning and I have been doing it by paying them overtime to do it, outside their normal jobs.

Mr Simpson

  118. When we had the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health here the other week and when we visited Heathrow, the environmental health officers there emphasised to us that whilst they warmly welcomed what the Government was trying to do they said it was crucial to expand the legal aspects. Indeed, in the evidence that you have given to us you have argued that quite strongly. If you had a wish list of increased legal powers, in order of priority, what would they be?
  (Mr Bloomfield) Certainly the powers are being enhanced as we speak. The one thing that we think is missing is the power to stop as well as to search. We are now allowed to search passengers but we do not have the power to stop them. Whilst in most practical circumstances people would stop, if you are actually trying to enforce the law you do really need the basic powers like powers of entry and powers to stop individuals, because they could just walk away from you.

  119. We got the strong impression at Heathrow that this was what they had flagged up, and we got the impression by the body language of Customs & Excise that they were not necessarily happy that other people had this right. We could see from the evidence that we were given that the trouble was there is always a built-in delay, and that depends upon whether people who have stop and search powers currently are there. Is that your experience?
  (Mr Young) In the checks that have been undertaken so far we have always had Customs officers present because they have the powers to stop and search. Those checks were undertaken before the new regulations recently came in that gave us the power of search. I think the issue, really, is that in practice 99 out of 100 passengers, on seeing a uniformed officer in the Customs channel and being asked to search their bags, will stop and open their bags, but we have found from experience in doing these checks that you do get quite aggressive challenges from the travelling public about what powers you are using to stop them and what powers you are using to look in their bags. I think this is really a question of giving people who are at the sharp end and the front line the strength that they will get from knowing they have actually got powers to stop people in the green channel.

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