Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)|
TUESDAY 2 JULY 2002
220. And if it was not, if another body was
set up to take on this central co-ordinating role, what implications
might that have for the existing roles of the different agencies
(Lord Whitty) I think it depends. The government is
engaged in reviewing the roles of various agencies. Most of the
port health people are local authority employed. There is an argument
that that should be a national agency; there is an argument that
there should be better co-ordination between that and Customs
& Excise and their own people and the FSA. I think a lot can
be achieved through better co-ordination but it may be that we
need to go a step further in terms of changing the jurisdiction
and merging some of the bodies concerned. Of course, it does go
broader than food imports because once you involve any change
in the jurisdiction of Customs & Excise, whose main priority
has hitherto been in relation to contraband, drugs, explosives
and terrorist activity, you could not subsume that within something
which is food-threats led, so I think you have to ensure that
the different dimensions are taken into account if you are going
to make any structural change. I am not excluding any structural
change, may I say.
221. But do you think you will come to a firm
conclusion in the near future that either we carry on with the
existing agencies co-ordinated in a fashion or a single body might
be more appropriate? Rather than that being on-going, is there
going to be a conclusion to that internal debate?
(Lord Whitty) Yes, but we have to recognise that,
if the conclusion is broadly the status quo or if it is a change,
there are always going to be boundary issues, and it is a question
of how those are managed and how we establish priorities between
the various core responsibilities and maximising the opportunities
between the various agencies. Whatever structure we have will,
for a particular purpose, need serious management and co-ordination.
But, for this phase of assessing any need for change in either
structure or legal responsibilities, there will be an endpoint.
I cannot say when that is but we are addressing that as a matter
of some urgency.
222. When the sub-committee visited Heathrow
it was told that a new information-sharing network was set upanother
acronym, "ILAPS" I suspectthe illegal imports
database. How has the introduction of that database been received,
and how can the information from this database, when it presumably
gets full of information, be used to best advantage to achieve
the objective we all want?
(Lord Whitty) It will provide quite a lot of the information
which the immediate risk assessment is based on and it will provide
it on a continuous basis, because all the information will be
shared and analysed.
223. Amongst whom?
(Lord Whitty) Customs, the Port Authorities, ourselves,
information from abroad, the Food Standards Agency, etc, and will
be used to build up pictures of changing patterns of threat and
therefore a policy, and resource and priority decisions which
will have to be based on that.
(Ms Wordley) The database was set up pretty much from
a standing start. We had virtually no data so it took some time
to build up anything that was useful at all because you cannot
form a clear picture until you have a reasonable amount of data
on the database. In the light of the first few months of getting
this information, we were able to make some preliminary judgments
about the sort of areas where the main problems seemed to be arising,
but the data was still very limited and hence we could not really
with any confidence say those were the main risk areas. Hence
there was the need to do the risk assessment which will give us
a better assessment of what the probabilities are. However, one
useful thing that is coming out of the first stage of the risk
assessment is it has enabled us to revisit the quality of the
data we are getting on the illegal imports database and in fact,
as a result of some of the work that Marion's team has done, we
have discovered that some of the seizures simply had not been
reported to the database so we now have a great deal of better
information on that database; the quality is improving all the
time, and I think the enforcement agencies now have a better understanding
of what it is we want them to report to us, so we are building
up a much more robust central database which will continue in
future. I should, however, say there is a slight danger of drawing
too firm a conclusion from that database itself because there
is a risk of having a self-fulfilling prophecy that you get seizures
from certain countries, let us say, on certain flights, so you
go back and look again at those flights and you get more, so it
looks as though that might well be the area where the main problem
is and you may have missed other areas of significant risk. This
is one of these areas of gaps that the risk assessment is attempting
to try and fill to make sure we are not missing important areas
of risk in the current data we have.
224. So in terms of the risk assessment and
the probability curves, and you took me back about forty years
in my maths and doing probability curves, first of all, you did
not have all the information which is now coming out, apparently
(Dr Wooldridge) I rather doubt we will ever have all
of the information.
225. You will have significantly less information
than perhaps you might have had, but my simple question is this:
did the fact that we had not had foot and mouth here for thirty
years make it less probable or more probable that we were going
to have foot and mouth?
(Dr Wooldridge) If you have a probability per year
then the fact that it is thirty years since it last happened,
or however long, is not going to affect that probability per year
in itself. However, conditions in the world will have changed
over that time: travel will have changed: the number of people
in this country who want to import may have changedI am
sure it hasand therefore conditions themselves will have
changed, so the likelihood is undoubtedly changing all the time.
Unfortunately it is changing as we do the risk assessment.
226. And all those, it would appear, add to
the probability that we would, rather than would not?
(Dr Wooldridge) That is my personal opinion but we
have not finished the risk assessment yet, so I cannot tell you
that is what we have found!
227. Let us take you back to the inter agency
work and the possibility of changing roles and responsibilities.
That is still there for discussion; it will not happen until after
the risk assessment is available; but you were careful not to
tell us what the length of that debate was going to be. It is
important in a way to put a full stop at the end of that sentence.
What kind of time period do you have in mind for discussion on
(Lord Whitty) We are engaged in the study across government
over the summer. Quite how long it will last into the autumn,
to the end of the year, really depends on the complexity and the
number of options they come up with. I would not like to put an
absolute end date on it, but it is months not years.
Mr Mark Todd
228. What exactly are you recording on this
(Ms Wordley) Seizures, primarily.
229. We are talking about seizures which are
from personal imports, from searches of containersanything?
(Ms Wordley) Yes.
230. And you record where they come from, presumably?
Who is carrying them? What exactly they were? The port of entry?
Destinations, if you can be clear about them?
(Ms Wordley) We have a pro forma which we ask the
enforcement authorities to complete. The information is not complete
on everything so on some seizures, for instance, we know the weight
but on others we do not know the weight, so the data is rather
patchy. As I said, we are improving the quality of it.
231. Is it mandatory to fill it in or is it
something they do if they feel they have the time?
(Ms Wordley) I think it is fair to say there is rather
more weight behind it than just that they fill it in if they have
time, but it is an agreement between the agencies that we will
pool and share this data.
232. Would it be helpful if it were mandatory?
It seems pretty critical if we are to track down the obvious sources
of this that it is an obligation and not something where someone
says, "Oh, well..."
(Lord Whitty) It is a standard procedure but I think
what we are saying is that not all historic data is based on a
full observance of the standard procedure.
233. We have already heard how under-resourced
some of the port authorities think they are. I am very familiar
with DEFRA forms and I would be surprised if this is a simple
(Lord Whitty) Simpler than some!
234. Good, but that would still indicate that
it might not be filled in with enthusiasm by an extremely busy
(Lord Whitty) One of the dimensions of this great
co-ordination that we have not really mentioned is that it brings
the IT operations of the various agencies together and there is
a considerable advantage in that. We are not quite at the point
where we are maximising that advantage but clearly it will become
easier as that co-operation grows to get a standard and effective
basis for analysis.
235. Could you send us a sample of the form?
(Lord Whitty) Yes.
236. In paragraph 36 of your helpful memorandum,
you outline the fact that, on 22 May of this year, "... legislative
changes came into effect to extend the search powers of local
authority enforcement officers... The Department will provide
guidance and assistance to enforcement officers to ensure that
their powers are used properly...". From the evidence that
we have received and from what we were told when we visited Heathrow,
they have not received any such guidance. Why is that?
(Lord Whitty) I think the need to provide search powers
for the Port Health Authorities was well established and to some
extent there was an assumption that they would be able to use
them instantly, but in the event we need some experience of how
they are used and the problems they engage in when using those
powers before we can give a definitive protocol for how they should
in future carry them out. That will not be very far off but we
have yet to finalise that. I think we are aiming at getting it
done by the end of July.
(Ms Wordley) By the beginning of August. We had a
meeting last week at official level and, in light of that, we
now have a small working group which is going to try and draw
up a fairly simple protocol. Ideally, yes, we would have had it
in place before now but our target is to get it agreed by 1 August.
237. It struck us as being the cart before the
horse. Certainly environment officers at Heathrow found it rather
strange that it was a come-as-you-are party kind of thing, and
therefore it was up to them to fly by the seat of their pants.
Secondly, the really crucial issue that comes from all the evidence
from environmental health officers is that they have legal powers
to search but they do not have legal powers to stop and search.
Why did you decide not to give them legal powers to stop and search?
(Lord Whitty) The two are different issues. The main
problem was that, up until that point, only Customs officials
had the ability to require people to search the luggage. There
are those who argue we should have moved further to give them
powers to stop and detain, but this gets them into the area where
Customs are operating with quasi police powers and they would
have to have the ability to enforce that detention which brings
them into a whole different area of operation, because Customs
have the ability to detain people and to call on reinforcements,
if you like, for people if they are doing a runner whereas, under
their direct control at least, the port authorities do not have
that. I am not excluding the possibility in the context of the
wider review which we mentioned that we would revisit that issue,
but it does require back-up to make it effective.
238. I understand. I am sure that they all welcome
the fact that you are going to look at it. Finally, what further
changes to legislation do you think are required to help strengthen
your aim of preventing illegal meat imports?
(Lord Whitty) There are two issues. One is a European
legislation issue. On the commercial import side, I think the
European regime works reasonably well. On the passenger side,
there is, in the British Government's view, a clear problem about
the exclusion of one kilogram of meat, one kilogram of fish, which
has been for some time the European de minimis conclusion,
although if you add everything else up you get a fair bag of food
through from third countries into the European Union. We think
the meat-related one should be dropped and probably some of the
others as well. As far as the meat-related one is concerned, we
have raised this very firmly with Commissioner Byrne, initially
as part of our approach to Europe, but more recently he has put
it to one of the Commission working groups. I think today the
Veterinary Committee are having a preliminary consideration about
this. The view of the Commission is that indeed we should do this.
Some Member States do not take the same view, but the Commission
officials have come out in favour of that position. Hopefully,
if we get that, that will be a major change in relation to passenger
imports. I think any changes relating to the UK's own legislation
internally would relate to the jurisdiction and would be part
of the product of any assessment of whether we need any change
in the relative powers of the various agencies involved.
239. The EU Food and Veterinary Office produced
a report of a mission to the United Kingdom from 15 October 2001
which said that the performance of the competent authorities needs
considerable improvement. Do you recognise that?
(Lord Whitty) I recognise the report. I recognise
that there were a number of criticisms in that report, some of
which we accept, some of which we feel are exaggerated in that
they found few errors in the procedure and have generalised the
conclusions. In general, though, we do accept that we do need
a better system to allow the oversight of the effort, and we have
agreed with the port operators, with the BIP operators, a detailed
action plan which we have now sent to the Commission. We think
that basically the FVO report was dealing with the administrative
direction, rather than assessing the effectiveness of stopping
illegal imports coming inthey had really no comment to
make on that dimensionand some of these administrative
dimensions do need to be addressed. I think the impression of
the report is that they found more drastic failings than they
actually did. In so far as they are serious failings, we are addressing