HL Deb 04 March 2002 vol 632 cc6-9

2.51 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further steps they are taking to stop illegal meat entering the United Kingdom.

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

My Lords, there are a number of concerns about illegal imports—animal disease and public health—and concerns about endangered species. Different considerations apply to illegal meat brought in by passengers and illegal meat hidden in bulk commercial imports. It is essential that in all those areas there is effective co-ordination between the various agencies on intelligence gathering and enforcement action. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is calling a summit meeting at the end of this month to discuss the next steps for intensifying our efforts.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, especially as he admits that there are acknowledged concerns over this awful trade. We have heard about the discussions which are to take place. However, can he tell the House what action the Government are taking? For instance, how many checks occur at Heathrow in one week? How many more sniffer dogs, which are used so well in many other countries, will there be? How many new x-ray machines, also used well in other countries, will there be? How many more government-trained personnel are being introduced at port authorities to catch illegal meat coming into this country?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, primarily, the situation is one of co-ordination and prioritisation rather than one of resources. Clearly, a number of public authorities are involved. Random checks are made on particular passengers. However, the noble Lord referred to major checks. There have been nine major checks in the past year, most of which have revealed substantial amounts of illegal meat. It is important to recognise that much of that is illegal for reasons related to public health and endangered species, as well as for other reasons. Very little would be responsible, in terms of susceptible animals, for conveying disease into the country. Nevertheless, for all those reasons, procedures need to be tightened up. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is calling together all the agencies. We are focusing on what more we need to do both in terms of resources and British and European legislation.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, does the Minister support the campaign currently being run by London Zoo to make the public aware of the danger posed to endangered species by the importation of bush meat? Can he tell the House whether the Government plan a more general campaign of education in marketplaces in which such products are sold?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government are opposed to the import of all illegal meat. We have particular concerns about endangered species and, in that sense, welcome the campaign to which the noble Lord referred. However, it is important to recognise that only a small proportion of what we refer to as illegal meat—or even of that proportion of illegal meat which is referred to as bush meat—is from endangered species. Obviously we want to bring that figure down to zero. However, it is only a small part of the problem.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not the case that it is now more than a year since the amount of meat coming into this country illegally was pointed out to us? Why is this taking so long? Nine checks demonstrate the huge quantity of meat being imported. Has the Minister thought about using Labrador dogs, who think only of their tummies and have an excellent sense of smell?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, at present we do not use dogs to detect meat imports into the UK. We use them for other purposes. We are about to co-operate with the New Zealand Government in an experiment to see whether dogs can be used in this respect. It is also important to recognise that almost certainly by far the largest and the most dangerous amounts of illegal meat do not come in by passenger transport but by being hidden in consignments of container meat or as goods which are wrongly labelled as something else and have probably entered the European Union at a different point from the UK. It is therefore important that we focus on where the problem is likely to be most acute. That is why we have commissioned a new risk assessment to identify where such imports are coming from and where they pose the highest risk.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while import control is extremely important, so too is the control of the movement of animals in the country, particularly in relation to the spread of disease, as we witnessed so obviously during the foot and mouth epidemic?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. I have always stressed that while illegal import minimisation is important, the reason that we were in such a disastrous situation in relation to foot and mouth was the rapid spread of that disease in the early stages. That was because of uncontrolled movements of animals within the country. It is important that we do not take our eye off the ball when considering imports and do not ignore or move away from ensuring that such movements internally do not spread the disease.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how much illegal meat has been seized coming through Heathrow in the past six months? As regards the other meat to which he referred, what proportion has been imported illegally through other food sources in containers rather than through Heathrow? Why on earth cannot sniffer dogs be used in this respect? Is it because one department owns the sniffer dogs and therefore another department cannot possibly use them? If they are based at the airport it seems bizarre that they cannot be used for similar purposes.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, clearly, dogs which are trained primarily to detect drugs cannot be transferred to alternative duties.

A noble Lord

Why not?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are perfectly legal amounts of meat which one is allowed to bring in, which do not pose a threat in any of these fields. Hitherto, it has been the view of successive governments that the most important substance to stop coming into the country is not meat but hard drugs. That is what our enforcement agencies and sniffer dogs have concentrated on. The noble Baroness asked about the amount of meat seized. I f she does not mind, I shall write to her giving details.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the major reasons why animals from endangered species are being killed and their meat imported to the United Kingdom is the destruction of the forest habitats in their countries of origin? Therefore, will the Government consider what measures they can take to help protect the forest cover, and in particular whether they will assist NGOs such as Global Witness, which have drawn attention to the problem?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, certainly that is part of the problem. However, the danger to endangered species is much more substantial within the countries of origin than from that arising from international trade. Together with DfID, my department is involved in a number of initiatives to restore and protect the forest through international partnerships.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, if there have been nine searches at Heathrow Airport in the past year, all of which were successful, why have there not been more?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, one has to target resources. The searches were particularly targeted on flights which have caused problems and are known to be the main conduits for meat. In addition, any general search on a passenger may reveal particular problems of meat imports. The number of checks is not as important as the degree to which we are succeeding in maximising the seizures we make. I believe we have begun to do that. However, I accept the general view of the House that more needs to be done on that front.