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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)



  120. In your original discussions with the Government in coming up with an action plan, did you flag this issue up with them or was this something you thought of subsequently?
  (Mr Averns) It was something that we put in our response to the draft regulations, so we made the point there and then that we felt this was something that was necessary.

  121. Did the Government respond to your suggestion?
  (Mr Young) They responded by giving us the search powers.

  122. The second point is, again from what we saw and heard, you flagged up very clearly that you would like a total ban on the import of products of animal origin. That is so that there is no doubt in anybody's mind about the personal allowance. You would like that to go. Is that correct?
  (Mr Young) That is correct, Chairman. We believe that it is very confusing to the public. It is difficult for us to know the full list of the exemptions for personal allowances of different products that you can bring in and we think it would send a message to the public that actually you are not allowed to bring in products of animal origin.

Mr Mitchell

  123. It is a big job turning out a container. Does that mean to say you do not check containers as much as you have been checking aeroplanes?
  (Mr Bloomfield) No, it does not. It means that you have to be very focused on what you are doing and target the ones that you think are going to contain illegal imports—the ones that you have experience of and, possibly, knowledge of some of the traders involved. You target those. It is a labour-intensive exercise, but it is the only way to find them.

  124. If you get it wrong you pay. In other words, there is no charge you can levy.
  (Mr Bloomfield) That is right. We do make sure that when we do find them we make them go through the process of declaring them as an import and then, because they do not comply, reject them. So we can make that charge. The issue of resource for the actual detective work—finding them—is not funded other than by local taxpayers, really.

  125. Quite obviously, you would levy a charge if you found smuggled meat, but who are you levying it on?
  (Mr Bloomfield) You would levy it on whoever was importing the rest of the goods in the container.

  126. Not the supplier back in wherever?
  (Mr Bloomfield) No. You have no way of getting it then.

  127. I get the impression from the Port of London Health Authority and the Corporation of London evidence that resources are not adequate for doing the job. Is that a reasonable impression?
  (Mr Averns) It is. There are two concerns. Firstly, London City Airport is not a border inspection post so no products of animal origin should come through there at all, so we are not at liberty to charge in any way, shape or form. Secondly, at the seaports, as Doug says, we have to target our resources there as effectively as possible. Certainly, not every container we examine or turn out would have products of animal origin in, and as you rightly say it is a labour-intensive exercise to do so; with a 40-foot container, or a 20-foot container, it can take a day or two to do that, and it ties up a lot of officer time and you would not necessarily detect products of animal origin, although you may find other foodstuffs which do not comply with UK and EC law.

  128. What further resources do you need and how should they be allocated? Do you want them allocated as a general charge on imports, or paid specifically out of public spending? What scale of resources do you need to do the job adequately?
  (Mr Young) Perhaps if I could respond to that. What we believe, based on our experience at Gatwick and, indeed, Heathrow airports on passenger baggage checks, is that you need a team of at least six people to undertake the checks properly. We would suggest that you probably need one of those teams at each of the major sea and airports to undertake freight and passenger checks. Part of the Government's action plan is to undertake a veterinary risk assessment, and that is currently being carried out. I think the outcome of that risk assessment will determine which ports will need to have those teams to best target those resources where the highest risk is.

  129. So it is more money, more staff and, presumably, more training?
  (Mr Young) It is more staff and the money to pay for those. We do not believe that it will be at a few sea and airports throughout the UK or that it should be local taxpayers that should foot the bill for that.

  130. I have had a written complaint as an MP for a food town about wide variations in practice between port health authorities; some are more, shall we say, assiduous, others take a more relaxed view—this is on, for instance, the labelling of meat imports and things like that. Presumably the same differences in vigour of enforcement exist in respect of products of animal origin.
  (Mr Bloomfield) I think those accusations are easier to make than they are to defend.

  131. They were very serious and it is a big problem for the manufacturers of packaging when stuff turns up and—
  (Mr Bloomfield) I think it is fair to say that where local authorities and port health authorities are working in situations where they are dealing with a lot of these problems all the while, they have more of these problems arising because they are handling more of that sort of cargo. They are dealing with difficult origins and from some of the more difficult and less scrupulous importers.

  132. Anybody who wants to import this stuff can do their own risk assessment, and work out it is better to come in through port A than port B, or airport C, or whatever.
  (Mr Bloomfield) It is not just a question of the UK, of course, because Rotterdam advertises itself as the UK's largest port. International trade being what it is, you can very quickly take your cargo to another port in another Member State, and if it is not being checked to the same standard there it could then go into free circulation and then would arrive in the UK without anybody knowing about it.

Mr Todd

  133. Is it really the most efficient way to manage this problem that individual local authorities make their judgments about how to provision your services?
  (Mr Averns) Through the Association of Port Health Authorities we have committees where we discuss enforcement issues. Through those committees we endeavour to get consistency in exactly what we are doing—to go back to the previous question. Certainly we also liaise with government departments to ensure that what we are doing is in line with policy for the Food Standards Agency or DEFRA, and that we follow any guidance which they issue.

  134. But your money is not ring-fenced, and each individual authority can make its own judgment in its own budgetary circumstances—and presumably do. Some of your members presumably incur the displeasure of other members through cuts they have made in services. Is that right?
  (Mr Young) Yes, that is right. Obviously both sea and airports do vary in size enormously, from very small sea or airports to very, very large, international ones. Therefore, they will be resourced differently according to the scale of the trade. I have already mentioned the detection team of at least six staff that we envisage being at the major ports, but we also envisage that they could, to some extent, be peripatetic and might, say, one or two days a month go and undertake checks at some of the smaller ports to provide that support for lower-resourced authorities.

  135. Who would pay for that? I did not quite catch whether you said that should not fall on the council taxpayer or whether it should..
  (Mr Young) We believe it should not fall on the council taxpayer.

  136. How do you make sure it does not, bearing in mind that the Government does not, at the moment, ring-fence money paid to authorities? If they hand the money over, it is perfectly permissible for the authorities to just trouser it and spend it on leisure or whatever else they may wish to put their money to.
  (Mr Young) Yes, you are quite right, and in fact local authorities themselves are actually against the ring-fencing of funds, for fairly obvious reasons. There is actually a model already in place, and that is funding for port health medical units at airports and, I believe, at the Channel Tunnel, where the Department of Health holds the budget. Authorities undertaking checks on passengers reclaim their expenses. We would envisage that this funding, if it were to be provided, could be held by DEFRA and it would, to an extent, give DEFRA control over what local authorities are doing, in that we would envisage that ports running these teams would have to submit annual plans of their activities for approval by DEFRA before the funding is forthcoming. That way it avoids the problem of ring-fencing of funds in local authorities and it also avoids the problem, as you say, of local authorities diverting those funds to other uses.

  137. Would it not be a lot easier if this power was taken away from local authorities altogether and a separate agency set up to manage it, rather than this curious, muddled model that you are suggesting?
  (Mr Young) That would be one option, quite obviously, but local authorities do already have the infrastructure in place in terms of offices, computer systems and networks. The infrastructure is already in place there. There is also the question—and I know this inquiry is particularly about meat and veterinary risks—of public health risks with all products of animal origin, and there are also the public health risks of products not of animal origin, which we do inspect as well.

Mr Breed

  138. Just briefly on a similar subject, about a year ago I tried to visit a number of ports and in the end was only allowed—if that is the right word—to visit Felixstowe, which I have to say was very impressive in terms of the facilities they have got, the people and everything else. That is obviously, if not the best, one of the best. However, it seemed to me that if that was the case, anybody who was determined to have a continuous trade, rather than an odd import—somebody who was continuously deciding to import illegal products—would not go through to that place and would, therefore, choose, if you like, the weakest link in the chain of ports. How much do you think that those that are determined to try and illegally import are actually exploiting the lack of resources at the smaller ports in order to get their stuff through, rather than use headline ports such as Heathrow and Felixstowe?
  (Mr Bloomfield) It is entirely possible that they could do that. In fact, we have evidence that suggests that that has gone on in the past. We, for many years now, have had a very good information system and electronically advise one another of what is going on, where problems are turning up specifically. The Association has just started a process of providing enhanced support for smaller ports, working on a regional basis, to ensure that that problem that you have suggested is actually a lower risk then it might currently be.

  139. But you have no factual information as to whether this is so?
  (Mr Averns) Perhaps I could answer that. Firstly, there are the types of trade which go into the smaller ports. They are not necessarily geared up to take containers into a port, for example. Container ports are those which are better-resourced and better policed. Secondly, one other legal requirement which would assist, we believe, would be prior notification of all foodstuffs. Because a lot of products of animal origin are smuggled in with other foods that is not to say that people would not necessarily ignore that requirement but at least that would help us, particularly at the airports, to make sure that controls are exercised at the ports before the foodstuffs go inland.

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