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Lord Grantchester: My Lords, I apologise profusely for not being in my place at the start of the debate. I had allowed enough time, but two trains in front of mine had broken down on the line, hence I have been delayed by more than three hours. I apologise unreservedly to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for not being present to hear her opening remarks, and I withdraw from the debate.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I accept the apologies given by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. Earlier in the week in south Wales, the railway system was greatly delayed by cattle on the line. Such things are not unknown; that clearly shows the importance of fencing.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for introducing the debate and bringing it to the attention of the House. It is quite right that she did; there is a great deal of concern, to which she referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar. The facts concern the veterinary sector very much. I declare that I am also an associate of the British Veterinary Association.
We are talking about the risks of the spread of infection, and their reduction through biosecurity. That raises a huge number of issues, and I shall focus on only a few. I shall list them, however, because it shows the problem that Defra, the farmers and the veterinary profession have. They have to contend with illegal meat imports, the threat of bioterrorism, the situation in our markets and at agricultural shows, the fallen stock issue, foot and mouth disease, bovine TB, the lack of large-animal vets, the inadequate system of tracking livestock, and all sorts of such issues, including scrapie and TSEs. All that I can do is pick out a few of those issues and express concerns felt throughout the industry and, indeed, beyond.
The recent reports of the Government's Veterinary Laboratory Agency show in some detail the situation on illegal meat imports. It has conducted quite a searching risk assessment of the impact of the danger from them. As someone who has been involved in economics and scientific research, the problem is that we always have difficulties with statistics. In this case, the statistics used are those that tracked imports of meat between 2001 and 2003, which record only 11,875 tonnes with 90 per cent certainty, according to the department's risk assessment.
I seem to recollect, howeverI have not had time to research it properlythat, within the past 12 months, the Minister said in reply to a question that more up-to-date information appeared to indicate that about 50,000 tonnes of illegal meat had come into the country after 2003. I would like the Minister to substantiate the figure for the amount of meat that has come in since the risk assessment took place. The assumptions of the risk assessment, particularly in the likelihood of outbreaks occurring as a result of meat imports, seem to be something of the order of one
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infection between 19 years and 600 years. With up-to-date data on more large amounts of illegal meat coming in, those risk assessments should be reviewed. I am not tearing at the Minister's throat, but it is a matter for his department about which we are all concerned.
Given the state of security, particularly in the Middle East, the unknown movement of materials and peopleespecially scientistscould indicate a continuing risk of bioterrorism. The president of the British Veterinary Association stated that, in the former USSR, 60,000 scientists were engaged in research on bio-warfare. Indeed, 100 establishments in the former USSR were engaged in such research. Who is to say that some of those scientists have not found their way into countries where a fairly chaotic situation exists? I would like to hear some reference to what precautions against bioterrorism are taking place in the UK, from Defra's viewpoint; I am sure that the Minister cannot speak for every department of the Government. Some indication of the consideration that has been given to the issue is important.
Biosecurity at markets, in terms of the timings at which farmers can bring stock to markets and the cleaning of vehicles, is a continuing issue. The department has reduced the number of days necessary before farmers can take their stock to market if they have been in contact with other stock. However, there are issues concerning agricultural shows. For example, if a farmer shows at an agricultural show, he cannot then market his stock for more than a week. I do not know whether that could be reduced to six days, but it would be mighty convenient if it could, as many sales take place on Fridays.
The Government are conducting control of scrapie in a responsible way. There are problems, but the strategy is basically right. However, the system for large-animal vets and the number of vets in government service are a continuing cause of concern. There are clearly not enough large-animal vets in the country, as the president of the British Veterinary Association, Tim Greet, has stated. We cannot continue to rely on the import of vets from the rest of Europe and around the world to help us outhe used the phrase "bail us out"when we have issues such as another FMD outbreak. The problems that arose there are well-documented.
Perhaps the most interesting and telling question is: if one does not know where one's livestock is, how can one control biosecurity? I draw the Minister's attention to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report. I shall not refer to the comments of the chairman, because I know that the Minister will feel that that is contentious. But can he comment on the report and its constructive criticisms? For example:
The second recommendation was that the Government make markets responsible for reporting all relevant animal movements, which would reduce
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anomalies. That could save up to £1 million a year in posting costs alone. There are many other issues raised by the committee, but perhaps the fact that reducing error levels could save the department about £15 million a year would be a major step forward.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, it is sad that we have had to miss the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, through no fault of his own. I thank him for the courteous manner in which he explained the problems he encountered. I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for initiating this important debate, which enables me to talk about the risks that illegally imported meats pose to the biosecurity of the UK. Those include bush meats and meats that are banned by CITES.
The main risk that they pose to agriculture in the UK is simplefoot and mouth disease. It is known that an infected bone was the cause of one of three FMD epidemics in the past 30 years. The other two outbreaks are believed also to have been caused by infected illegally imported meats. There is not sufficient time to cover in this speech other important diseases.
Defra estimates that the total amount of illegal meat entering the UK increased from 7,500 tonnes to more than 11,750 tonnes in the past year alone. That is a 60 per cent increase. Interestingly, 85 per cent of the total weight of illegal meat enters the UK via personal baggage. These figures lead one to conclude that there has been a rapid rise in the importation of illegal meats through airports and thus the risk to our biosecurity.
Defra estimates that between 65 kilograms and half a tonne of illegal meat is infected with FMD. Perhaps the Minister can say how Defra calculates that statistic in the light of his Written Answer of 23 February 2004 in which he said:
Therefore, if illegal imports of meats are destroyed without undue delay, how can Defra, without analysing them, make such estimates about infected meat or statements about CITES enforcement?
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The increased quantities of seizures of illegal imported meats over the past two years are most alarming. The reason for that may well, in part, lie in a statement made by an African representative at the bush meat conference held on the 15 December 2003. He said that part of the reason for illegal meat imports was that smugglers were not frightened of any conviction if caught in the UK. If laws are not backed with deterrents such as prosecutions for breaking the law, it is not difficult to see why the lucrative trade in illegal meats is increasing alarmingly. Those Defra figures show that the government strategy on illegally imported meats is a shambles and is in disarray.
Sadly, one can go further to suggest that this macabre trade is not driven by people wishing to bring in a piece of meat for their own consumption but is driven by an organised black market trade not dissimilar from the drug trade. Given that suitcases are seized full of bloody dripping meat, often valued at £36 per pound, with chimpanzees worth £350 apiece, this is a highly lucrative trade. I was unable to find estimates on the value of gorilla or elephant meat that was rumoured to be on offer for sale in Lambeth in January this year. All this is expensive meat not for your average gourmet. So one must ask why the Government is so lenient in not bringing forward or insisting that the relevant agencies bring forward prosecutions. In a Written Answer on 13 November 2003, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey stated:
"HM Customs and Excise took on responsibility for anti-smuggling controls on meat from the 11 April 2003. Their policy is outlined in a service level agreement between Customs and Defra, which says that Customs will consider for investigation and prosecution cases where suitable evidence is available".
"We have made clear that prosecutions are an important aspect of deterrence which we would like to see used where there is clear evidence of a serious breach in the rules".[Official Report, 4/3/03; col. WA 106.]
In February this year Paul Rainbird from the Customs illegal meat team, while accompanying the Customs Minister John Healey, during a leaflet launch on illegal meats at Heathrow airport, was reported to have commented openly that bringing illegal meats was mostly for personal consumption and was only like us taking a packet of digestive biscuits with us when we travel abroad. Is that the Government's view? That is disturbing when a suitcase full of illegal meat is unlikely to be for personal consumption and can breach the UK's biosecurity. The last time I ventured into the US the apple given out on the transatlantic flight was confiscated by Customs for the sake of biosecurity.
The US government spend billions of dollars on biosecurity. Australia is spending £246 million this year alone to counter threats from exotic pests and
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diseases such as FMD. Sadly, this Government, with one FMD epidemic under their belt and other major agricultural epidemics, announced that they will spend only £8 million a year for the next three years to do the same. One may draw one's own conclusions from the Government's rhetoric versus action on how serious they take UK biosecurity.
The last outbreak of FMD cost a minimum of £8 billion to this country and the death of more than 6 million animals, including the ruination of many agricultural businesses and family livesnot to mention the UK tourist business. We must not forget those farmers who committed suicide because of their dire situation brought on by FMD.
The Government's actions on dealing with the importation of illegal meats might lead one to believe that the biosecurity of the UK is not one of their priorities. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, called Defra,
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