HC Deb 06 March 2003 vol 400 cc940-4
2. Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

If she will make a statement on control of illegal food imports. [101111]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Margaret Beckett)

Significant progress has been made against the Government's action plan, published in March 2002. We have increased the level of inspections and seizures, provided better powers for enforcement officers, increased public awareness and taken decisions about future responsibilities for detection and deterrence. However, we are not complacent and we recognise that there is still more to do, so we are preparing a revised and updated action plan for 2003–04. We are also working to finalise the arrangements for Customs and Excise to take overall responsibility for anti-smuggling measures.

Sandra Gidley

Does the Secretary of State agree that little attention has been paid to the vast majority of seaports and airports, with attention concentrated on the main two? What additional resources will be available to local authorities that have seaports and airports to assist them in detecting illegal meat imports? When will she publish the risk assessment prepared by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency?

Margaret Beckett

The hon. Lady is not quite correct. There has been a larger increase in staff at the major airports, as is to be expected, since that is where the major amount of trade is, but there has also been an increase in staff at major seaports, for example. Local authorities already have duties and it is up o them to carry them out. With regard to the risk assessment, I cannot add to what we said on a previous occasion. As she knows, that is out for peer review. We hope to publish it in the not-too-distant future, and I am sure that the House will find it fascinating reading.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

My right hon. Friend will know that I chair the bush meat campaign, which is arranging trials of X-ray equipment for her Department to show how it can be used to detect meat in passenger luggage. While we await the results of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency analysis of the potential disease risks to animals from illegal meat imports, will she ask the Food Standards Agency to explain why it has failed to conduct an analysis of the disease risk to human health from the illegal trade in bush meat and other illegal meat imports into the UK? It seems strange to the public that something that is considered a risk to animals is not deemed to be a threat to humans that warrants investigation.

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend asks two questions. As he knows, although it is important that we deal with the issue of illegal imports in general, including illegal imports of bush meat, only about 2.5 per cent. of reported seizures of products of animal origin are of bush meat. It can be a serious problem, particularly if it comes from endangered species, which is not always the case. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he and others are undertaking and look forward to receiving the results of that work. There is not much more that I can add. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the FSA, but as he knows, it is an independent agency with its own responsibilities. In so far as it reports to Government, it reports to the Department of Health.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the 17 farms in Holland where there has been an outbreak of avian influenza? That is a notifiable disease for which there is no vaccine, and it is between 85 and 100 per cent. fatal. What steps is she taking to prevent the disease coming to Britain? It started in Italy and moved through Germany to Holland. Will she stop imports now? Will she be proactive to prevent another outbreak similar to foot and mouth? Will she ensure that there is proper compensation if her efforts to stop the disease fail?

Margaret Beckett

That was about six questions. Yes, I am aware of the outbreak and we take it very seriously. The chief veterinary officer reported to me only yesterday that we are monitoring what is happening, issuing the relevant warnings and so on. The hon. Gentleman knows that we cannot simply close our borders under single market rules, but we are monitoring the situation carefully.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many believe that the action taken in other countries is far stricter than our system, but many people forget the amount of smuggling that takes place in those countries. Does she agree that the best way forward would be a single enforcement agency, so that everyone would know who was tackling the problem?

Margaret Beckett

As I hope my hon. Friend will be aware, we do not by any means rule that out in the slightly longer term. He is right that there is sometimes an illusion about how much more is done in other countries, especially with regard to the amount of trade and traffic. We have substantially increased activity in this country. For example, in January, at Gatwick alone, almost 3,000 people arriving from outside the European Union were either questioned about or searched for illegal food products. As he knows, it takes time to set up separate agencies, agree remits and so on. It was agreed that, because of the urgent need to take more action, it was better to identify which single agency should have overall responsibility at present. That is why Customs and Excise will take responsibility from April, but we shall continue to monitor the situation and, if it seems better to set up a separate new agency later, we shall certainly give the matter careful consideration.

Andrew George (St. Ives)

Does the Secretary of State understand that farmers are being asked to make Herculean efforts to ensure the biosecurity of their own holdings but very few have confidence in the biosecurity of this country? How confident is she in the effectiveness of her Government's policies, especially in respect of illegal meat exports from countries that are known to be the primary source of the problem, and in intelligence about the market for illegal meat in this country, which should surely provide the benchmark against which she and her Department can measure the success of her policies?

Margaret Beckett

In particular, I accept the hon. Gentleman's last point about the markets in this country and how one should identify and track them down. I assure him that when we had our first stakeholders' discussion on this matter, a very considerable effort was made to encourage those who might have knowledge and awareness of where the demand is coming from and how such meat is marketed to come forward. I fear that that was done without very much result, so if any Member of the House has any contacts that might help to add to the intelligence, which is, frankly, pretty lacking at present, that would be very beneficial.

Of course, I do not think that anyone would ever pretend, no matter what we do, that we can be 100 per cent. confident of keeping out all illegal imports. That is impossible. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman's farming constituents is that I accept, of course, that there are onerous responsibilities on them, as there are on the Government, and we are doing our utmost to discharge our responsibilities, but such matters can never all be the responsibility of the farmer without the Government needing to do anything. The Government need to do what they can to tackle the problem of illegal importation, but equally, it cannot be solely their responsibility. The issue is a very important link in the chain. It is one thing when a disease source comes into the country, but quite another when it spreads, particularly as it did in the last outbreak.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the issue of food imports is not distinct from that of the animal by-products order, which takes effect on 1 May this year and relates in particular to the composting of animal materials. She is aware that there is something of an impasse between the Government and farmers organisations, renderers and others in the food chain. Is that impasse likely to be broken before 1 May, otherwise, there could be some difficulties about what happens to such products?

Margaret Beckett

I accept that discussions are continuing, but I have just quickly cross-checked with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, and I do not think that any of us is under the impression that we have reached an impasse and that there is no way forward. There are difficulties and concerns, as is frequently the case, but we are certainly continuing with those talks and we hope that they will be successfully resolved.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

May I press the right hon. Lady further on the Veterinary Laboratories Agency's risk assessment? That key part of the Government's strategy has now been delayed for many months beyond its expected publication date. Indeed, in a report dated November last year, the Department's own website shows that the report was expected to be completed by the end of 2002. Can she explain the reasons for that prolonged and repeated delay in completing this essential report? Does not all this bear out the comment of the president of the Royal Society that the one thing lacking from the Government's action plan was any action?

Margaret Beckett

No, it does not, but I accept that there is some justice in the hon. Gentleman's remarks about our having had to wait an unduly long time for the risk assessment to be made available and published. What hon. Members should take on board—they will do so when the assessment is published—is that, as people will see, the assessment is an enormously complex task and a ground-breaking piece of work. It is not something that people have tried to do before. There are two reasons why the assessment has not yet been published: quality assurance and peer review. As I said, it is a first to try to do this. When we publish it in full, everybody will be able to see the process, methods, data and results, and will probably have a good idea of why it took so long.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I need the co-operation of the House. We are still on Question 2 and we are 20 minutes into Question Time. We need brief questions and briefer answers.