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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18th March 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.

Illegal Meat Imports

Lord Geraint asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What was the estimated tonnage of illegal meat imported into this country last year and what was the corresponding figure for 1992.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the forthcoming risk assessment will give a broad estimate of the total weight of meat illegally imported into the United Kingdom on average each year. It is due to be published in the next few weeks, following the completion of final quality assurance and peer review processes. No earlier estimates are available.

Lord Geraint: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can he confirm or deny that the 1 billion=worth of illegal meat entering this country annually contains human flesh?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not recognise the figure of 1 billion. Allegations have been made that some meat has contained human flesh, but those are matters for the police rather than Customs and Excise or our own inspectors. There is no proof that such imports have been made. Although there are serious problems related to the meat trade, ones that the Government are attempting to address, the allegations are probably something of a diversion from the main problem.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am sorry that no figures can be made available to the House and hope that that will be quickly remedied. Would it be possible for the Government to render illegal the importation of meat from countries which allow the use of banned substances that may not be used in this country? Will the Government address this issue since obviously it has huge implications for UK farming?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, cases involving poultry imports have recently received wide publicity. Those imports are illegal and such meat should not be brought into this country. Of course differing treatment regimes apply in different countries and are still allowed under trade agreements. However, the recent high-profile issues relating to certain imported poultry meat are illegal and that meat should never have been allowed to come into this country.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that most illegally imported meat finds

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its way into the rather more dubious take-away and fast food outlets? What efforts are being made by his department and other departments to prevent this criminal trade, given the impact it may have on human and animal health? We could face very serious consequences.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord is obviously more familiar with dodgy fast food and take-away outlets than I. I am not aware that those outlets necessarily provide the main route into livestock or public health problems. A number of potential routes exist. However, when the risk assessment comes to be published, I think it will show that although there is a significant problem with regard to the importation of illegal meat, only a relatively small proportion of that meat is likely to be diseased, and again only a small proportion of that is likely to contaminate livestock or pose a threat to human health. The problems with regard to monitoring, control and enforcement therefore lie with identifying all routes. But it is a difficult job to pick out what may pose an actual threat to human or animal health.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House about the partnership work presently being undertaken between the various departments concerned to deal with the importation of illegal meat? How does he see those partnerships moving forward and progressing in the future?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, one of the main problems identified in this area was the fact that a multiplicity of agencies have been involved in the control of meat and other food imports. The Cabinet Office undertook a major study, from which the main recommendation made was that Customs and Excise should take over the illegal importation enforcement side, thus dealing with meat smuggling as a whole. The handover to Customs and Excise should take place sometime in April.

In addition, primary control of the legal trade in meat imports is currently the responsibility of local authorities working under the direction of the Food Standards Agency, although other bodies are also involved. A further recommendation has been made that co-ordination should be stepped up and, if necessary, we should consider the creation of a new agency to deliver the improvements being sought.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, can the Minister shed any more light on the trade in so-called bushmeat? What are the Government doing in terms of establishing relations with those countries supplying such meat to this country?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, what is generally known as bushmeat accounts for only a relatively small proportion of the total trade. Certainly as regards seizures of illegally imported meat, it accounts for under 2.5 per cent of those seizures. Furthermore, only a very small proportion of bushmeat derives from endangered species. The main enforcement arm

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internationally is CITES, the relevant convention in relation to international trade in endangered species. Under that convention, we have stepped up inspectorate controls and checking procedures at the points of origin, in particular at the most likely points, largely in Africa.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how his dogs are doing? Have they caught anyone smuggling meat? Is he training any more dogs for this purpose?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the dogs are fine. Both of them are getting on very well. The pilot study will finish in a month or two, at which point Customs and Excise will take over and assess whether or not to extend the experiment. The dogs have indeed found a significant number of people smuggling illegal meat. That meat has been confiscated as a result of the efforts of these two stalwart dogs.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, how many seizures were made last year? How many prosecutions were made? What is the heaviest fine that can be imposed?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the highest fine that can be imposed is 5,000. Some 2,900 people were stopped and searched and approximately 2,000 seizures—amounting to 27,000 kilogrammes of illegal meat—were made. Most of the seizures were made in ports and airports through the passenger trade, although some were made through commercial channels when checks were carried out—as they are fairly efficiently—on container loads. Local authorities carry out prosecutions and, as far as I am aware, there were three last year.

Post Office Underground Railway

2.45 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What future they envisage for the Post Office underground railway in London.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, decisions on the future use of MailRail are a commercial matter for the Royal Mail board. The Government understand that the decision to discontinue the service has been reached because the system costs today more than four times as much to operate as using road transport. The Government understand that the company is actively seeking and considering alternative uses for MailRail from outside sources. No decisions have yet been taken by the company on this matter.

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Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. A number of Members of this House and another place visited MailRail at the invitation of the Post Office two weeks ago. Every member of our party was greatly impressed with the quality of the track and tunnels and of the infrastructure generally. Does my noble friend agree that it would be regrettable if this unique facility were to be closed permanently given the fact that it is capable of transporting significant quantities of freight under the streets of London in an entirely environmentally friendly way? Are the Government prepared to support the attempt, which I understand the Post Office will shortly be making, to change the legislation—particularly the Post Office (London) Railway Act 1913—to allow freight other than mail to be carried on the railway?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the Royal Mail has agreed to pursue a legislative route to widen the scope of usage for the system. If it decides to seek an appropriate order under the transport and works legislation, my department would support such a move.

Lord Methuen: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Post Office railway is beneficial from a congestion point of view? Would it be practical to extend the line to Willesden, where the main Post Office sorting centre is located?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as regards transport it makes very little difference. The company envisages using only a handful of extra vehicles after MailRail is taken out of service because a huge proportion of the mail it now carries will be transported on existing vehicle routes. As regards extension, MailRail used to connect nine different stations but, with the movement of sorting offices to new areas of population, it now covers only four. Extending it would make no economic sense at all.

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