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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, my question relates to the report of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on tackling tax fraud, which was published three weeks' ago. It pointed out that the Inland Revenue would like to have the same power as the United States Internal Revenue Service to issue information notices to banks, asking them if a customer has an overseas account. Would the Government contemplate giving our Inland Revenue the same powers, because they would be effective?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I shall not comment on the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillipscalled by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, "the fine line" between tax evasion and tax avoidance. For me one is illegal and the other is legal and that is not a fine line at all.
Regarding the second point, I acknowledge the valuable report of the Public Accounts Committee. In turn, it recognised that in the 2003 Budget we introduced new compliance and enforcement initiatives to enable us to deal with offshore problems. The committee agreed that any further steps should await confirmation of the success or otherwise of the initiatives that were introduced last year. We are certainly prepared to go further if that proves necessary.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend recognises the fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion occasionally. However, in his earlier reply he appeared to place responsibility on perfectly reputable accountants who have devised perfectly legal tax avoidance schemes that are misused by taxpayers. That is what I was referring to and I hope that that was what he had in mind.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the phrase "fine line" was used by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. I see no fine line between illegality and legality. It is different under different legal jurisdictions, but it is there and it ought to be adhered to.
My point in relation to the first supplementary question was that professional advisers, be they lawyers or accountants, have a responsibility to ensure that clients who take their advice do not transgress the line between avoidance and evasion. If he is saying that others who have no professional relationship to a client are doing that, clearly professional advisers cannot intervene.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, in the light of the outbreak of avian flu, European law was introduced on 29 January addressing concerns about live birds. Accordingly, the UK Government took measures that same day to ban the importation of all live birds from Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, China, South Korea and Vietnam.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am surprised that the Government, in choosing to ban a number of imported products on 23 January, did not ban the import of live birds until a week later. In the light of lessons learnt during the foot and mouth outbreak about transmission between live animals or birds being so much more dangerous, can the Minister explain that? Furthermore, is this not a good moment to call a halt to a trade which is a disguise for some of the illegal imports of wild birds into this country, decimating the populations in the countries from which they come?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are two different points. The EU decision to ban the import of live birds of all kinds from the nine south-east Asian countries was a precautionary move and further precautionary moves have been introduced. The risk of them having the strain of avian flu that exists among poultry is very low. The number of imports of live birds from those countries directly into the UK during the past few years has been very low indeed.
In so far as live exotic birds are imported from tropical climes, they tend to come from South Africa and not from south-east Asia. While there have been concerns about legitimacy and bird welfare involved in the trade, it is a legal trade under EU and international law, provided that animal welfare legislation is observed.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, fertiliser made in that way should not be imported from the Far East but, on a precautionary basis, the EU is banning imports of feathers and a number of products based on bird droppings from those countries. That therefore minimises any risk, however remote, of the particular strain of avian flu coming into Europe.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, we should be glad that the Government have banned the import of live birds. There is of course the major problem of poultry products coming from the Far East in massive amounts. This virus spreads rapidly and is lethal. What is the capability of this country and the European Union in the production of a vaccine against this avian flu and possibly the recombination of avian and human flu viruses? Are we set up to respond to the danger should it enter the EU?
As regards the vaccine, the World Health Organisation network is working on vaccines which meet particular strains of avian flu. The vaccine is not at this point available and it may take weeks or months before it would be available on a sufficiently usable scale in Europe. If there were a recombination of the kind the noble Lord refers to in humans, that would be a different strain again on which one would have to develop a vaccine. A base vaccine exists, but one would have to develop it in order to meet the particular strain.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, do the Minister and the Government share the concerns I have heard expressed by some biologists that avian flu would be more likely to spread to pigs than humans and that if it did a new virus could be generated which would be far more infective between humans because the pig is much nearer to our construction than is the bird?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is true that pigs are susceptible to avian flu. In the same way as a reconstitution of the virus can occur in humans, in effect creating a new virus, it can do so in pigs for the very reason the noble Baroness outlined. Therefore, there is undoubtedly that danger, which is probably higher because frequently in south-east Asiain China in particularpigs and poultry are kept together. That form of husbandry may maximise the danger, which is why Europe and other importing areas of the world must be on their guard against importing any poultry or pig produce from the affected areas.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, will the Minister confirm whether or not wild birds are able to contract avian flu? When the question was first raised a few weeks ago, he said that it was not possible. Secondly, although the embargo was slapped on as soon as it was known, the outbreak occurred in October/November. Is there any tracking of cage-birds that have entered the country? If so, what results have been shown?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, extremely few cage-birds have entered this country from south-east Asia in recent years and therefore a tracking system could not effectively be pursued. In any event, the virus would have run out by October. As I said last week, there is a low level of avian flu in wild bird populations. It tends to be of low pathogenecity and in poultry the pathogenicity increases. Therefore, the transferability of avian flu in wild birds to humans is probably very limited indeed, if it exists at all. It must be transmitted via poultry before it becomes infective to humans. Nevertheless, that situation must be kept under control.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, have there been any seizures of chicken produce from Asia since the ban came into being? If so, have there been any prosecutions of the people who have brought in that produce?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, since the ban on imports from Thailand, which is the only new ban, there have been no seizures. There may well have been seizures prior to the avian flu of produce coming from China and other banned countries. If I can acquire such information, I will let the noble Lord know.
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