HL Deb 24 April 2002 vol 634 cc241-4

2.49 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are content with the detection rate of illegal meat imports.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the term "detection rate" in this context is not appropriate or, indeed, calculable. If the noble Lord wants to know whether I am satisfied that we have yet done all that is needed to minimise the risk of illegal meat imports, the answer is no. That is why the Government published an action plan on 28th March, the aim of which is to reduce the risk of exotic animal disease and plant disease entering the country and threatening our public health and our livestock, agriculture and horticulture sectors.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Will he confirm that, in 2000, the passenger luggage searched on 14 aircraft arriving from West Africa revealed more than five tonnes of illegal meat such as bushmeat and endangered species? Can he say how many people have been fined, and how many deported, for importing illegal meat in the past three years?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the figures which the noble Lord gives for 2000 are broadly correct. As he will realise, however, the detection rate includes the detection of fish and other species that are unlikely to have conveyed animal disease to susceptible animals in this country. In that period there were no prosecutions in relation to public hygiene matters, but two successful prosecutions occurred in relation to endangered species.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we imported foot and mouth disease into this country last year? This year, we are importing illegal meat from foreign countries. We are also putting more restrictions and regulation on farmers than ever before. Can the Minister tell us what is wrong within his department?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the tone of the question suggests that the disease spread due to lax import controls, and that the most probable origin of the disease was illegally imported meat. However, the disaster of the disease was due to the rapid spread and mingling of animals before the disease was detected within this country. The two are therefore not related. However, the Government have taken steps not only to achieve better bio-security and controls on movement within the country, but also to give greater powers and priority to the detection of meat entering this country by means of both passenger and commercial traffic.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the noble Lord understand that there will always be a problem about a detection rate as one cannot know what has not been detected? What is the size of the problem? Can he assist the House with the Government's estimate of the broad scope of illegal imports?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the two parts of the noble Lord's question seem slightly to cut across each other. I agree with him on the first part; indeed, I made that point in my initial reply to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. The same applies to the second part. I cannot give an overall assessment of what is not detected. I can, however, say that there is a serious level of illegal importation. The Government are directing their action plan to ensure that resources are properly prioritised to try to deal with it.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, with the haunches of gorillas and monkeys coming in, human diseases—frightening diseases such as ebola—also can come in? Is it not time to introduce more sniffer dogs, which are more clever than humans in detecting these problems?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are certainly examining its feasibility. Detection of all sorts—by machinery, by people, and potentially by dogs—is one way of tightening up on the controls. The noble Baroness is absolutely correct that the potential for passing human disease is one aspect we have to watch for.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, what is the maximum fine that can be imposed on those who import illegal meat?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the maximum fine for the import of illegal meat generally is £5,000, or two years' imprisonment, but higher if it involves endangered species.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that we have been complaining for 12 months about imports of meat to this country both by ship and by air. There has been singularly little result. Last month he mentioned an action plan. Can he say now how many more inspectors we shall have at: airports and how many more for shipping? When will the pressure brought by those of us on this side bring some results? It is quite unfair that he has refused to hold a public inquiry which might produce some results. Moreover, farmers are thoroughly fed up with the Government's dilatory approach to imports.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not think that that is either accurate or fair. The Government have recognised that there is a problem of imports and achieving better checks. However, we have always made the parallel point—which not all of our critics have—that internal controls are just as important as import checks. As I have often said to the House, the issue is not so much numbers—there are multiple purposes for the inspections and checks made by all the agencies including Customs, the port authorities and others—but prioritisation and co-ordination between the various agencies. The action plan is directed to precisely that.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, we have discussed the issue of illegal meat being imported to this country. However, is my noble friend satisfied with our safeguards for the legal importation of meat?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am satisfied that the level of inspection in the commercial trade of legal meat is very robust. There is 100 per cent documentation check on all containers, and the level of physical spot checks on containers varies from one in five to one in two depending on the content. I am therefore satisfied on the commercial side. On the passenger side, there is the issue of passengers being allowed up to one kilogram, under European legislation, of meat from third countries. We have raised the issue of whether that is appropriate with Commissioner Byrne and look to pursue it at the European level.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I wish to press the Minister further. First, he has told the House that, in fighting the disease, internal movements are as important as preventing its importation. I question that. If the disease were not in this country, we would not have the problem. Secondly, he has acknowledged that it probably arose from imported food. If so, why cannot the European countries, particularly the United Kingdom, take note of what happens in foreign countries where the import of such meat in personal possessions is not allowed? Finally, will he please call for a public inquiry so that we can sort out the matter?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have every confidence that the inquiries which the Government have initiated will concentrate on, among other things, the issue of import controls, and that they will do so rather more effectively than lengthy legalistic public inquiries for which certain Members of the House continue to hanker. Those inquiries will report by this summer. A public inquiry would take several months, and possibly years, longer. I therefore do not think that truth or effective action would result from that.

I have now completely forgotten the first part of the noble Baroness's question.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. He said he felt that internal movement of the disease was more important than preventing its initial entrance. I chose on behalf of these Benches to disagree with him.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I note the disagreement. Nevertheless, the disease got out of hand in this country not because of a failure of detection—in legal or illegal imports—at the ports, but because the disease had spread across the country in the three or four weeks before the initial case was confirmed. Moreover, some illegal imports do occur in the countries to which the noble Baroness referred. There are very substantial illegal imports into, for example, the United States. So, however tight the controls, such imports sometimes get in.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does my noble friend believe that the Government's action in regard to the treatment of waste food and prohibiting the use of swill has ended one very serious risk and the possible cause of the outbreak in the first place?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords; indeed, that is the most probable way in which the disease entered the food chain. The ending of the practice as of March 2001 should close off that possibility.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, up to 6 million containers enter this country annually, and 65 million people come into Heathrow alone. Does the Minister agree that the gangs who control the import of illegal food are essentially as terrible as those running the drugs trade? What have he and the department done to co-operate with the Home Office and Customs and Excise in trying to sort out the problem in a joint operation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is precisely what the action plan is about—bringing together all the agencies involved. Furthermore, the secondary legislation which is now being considered by Parliament will give greater powers to the port and local authority inspectors in parallel with Customs. So greater co-ordination and everyone's involvement in ensuring that priority is given to the inspections is a very central part of the action plan.