HL Deb 04 February 2003 vol 644 cc105-7

Lord Rotherwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they plan to train any more sniffer dogs at a reported cost of £30,000 each for the detection of illegal meats in light of reports that the existing dogs have been inoperative.

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

My Lords, the Government are running a six-month pilot into the use of detector dogs, which concludes at the end of March. Decisions will be taken at that stage in conjunction with Customs and Excise, which will be taking over responsibility for anti-smuggling activity as soon as practicable. The two dogs have been operational most of the time and both have never been out of action at any one time. Evaluation of the pilot will inform decisions on the contribution that detector dogs make to the overall enforcement strategy on illegal imports of animal products.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Will he acknowledge, however, that the solutions in the DEFRA action pack produced in March 2002—nearly a year ago—have largely fallen flat on their face? There are no amnesty bins; the wording on the landing cards has yet to be agreed; the service agreement between DEFRA and Customs and Excise has yet to be implemented; and there has been a pitiful number of arrests of people bringing in illegal meat. Have not the Government largely failed in their policy on this matter?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords; I do not accept that. There has been a major increase in the number of checks and the amount of illegal meat seized. The deterrence factor, in terms of publicity, has been substantial, and a major review has been undertaken of the jurisdiction of the various agencies—which, as I said, will involve Customs and Excise taking over responsibility for dealing with this illegal trade. So substantial progress has been made. Discussions are continuing on some of the issues referred to.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, does the Minister agree that two sniffer dogs are not many given the number of airports in this country?

Lord Whitty

Evidently, my Lords. But this is a pilot study—and, as the noble Lord's Question points out, quite an expensive one. Not every country which is admired for the effectiveness of its controls uses detector dogs—as I understand it, no other country in Europe does so. So we need to establish whether this method will be effective. That requires that the pilot study should run for a number of months. The dogs have been fairly successful: they are alleged to have made over 600 seizures.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, as sniffer dogs are commonly used in Australia, has any check been made on results there?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. We have discussed with our Australian and New Zealand colleagues the way in which dogs are used under their regime. There are greater complexities in the UK; that is why we felt that a pilot study was necessary.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that it is good to hear that the two dogs are back in action? I understand that one was sick and the other in danger of being electrocuted; in the interests of animal welfare, that is a good piece of news. But when will the first 100 dogs be present at every port and airport as part of the check on illegal meat? In my experience, a dog can sniff meat from 100 yards away; therefore, it should not be too difficult to train them.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are a number of points there. First, perhaps I may make it clear that the two dogs are part of a pilot project that needs to be completed before it is rolled out to a significant additional number of dogs. As regards the welfare of the two dogs, one was indeed subject to an electrical incident. However, at no point during the operation of the pilot scheme have both dogs been off at the same time. Therefore, we have always had canine influence at the border during the course of the pilot. I have had occasion previously to explain gently to Members of this House that it is not easy to switch other sniffer dogs on to the detection of food. Whether your Lordships like it or not, if a dog has been employed on drug duty and has acquired a taste for cocaine, he is unlikely to go after a smelly piece of meat!

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, are other, more sophisticated, more effective and possibly cheaper methods of detection being used by DEFRA to try to intercept illegal meat?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords, other methods are being tried, and they are effective. I refer to an increase in manpower and a number of experiments relating to different forms of X-ray machinery. More effective than all of those is better intelligence and more effective police and enforcement operations, which is what Customs and Excise will bring to this task.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, further to the Question, will the Minister give the House a better idea as to when the service level agreement will be implemented? What is the Government's calculation as to the extra cost involved?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the service level agreement relates to the handover of these responsibilities to Customs and Excise. That is being finalised. It is anticipated that Customs and Excise will take over this responsibility with effect from 1st April. As to additional cost, the spending settlement allocated, over the period of the spending review, an additional £25 million, most of which would be spent on detection at this level.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what breed of dog is being used? Will this involve the hereditary principle?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, both dogs are fully appointed. Our remaining hereditary element will be pleased to know that they are thoroughbred Labradors.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, is the Minister aware of a private organisation in the north of England called, I believe, Dog Leads, that trains sniffer dogs in the detection of money, drugs, dead bodies and so forth? I am sure that those dogs could be used for less than £30,000 per trained animal. I believe that the organisation has quite a number of dogs available. Possibly the Government should take advantage of that organisation.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not aware of the precise organisation referred to by the noble Lord, but were the experiment to be rolled out, then we would need to make use of more dog trainers. However, the cost of £30,000 does not cover only training, it also covers kennelling and handling. Those expenses must be taken into account when assessing the effectiveness of this method of detection.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the worrying report on food safety published last week by the World Health Organisation? It stresses the need to detect illegal imports of food for the safety of the nation.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, we are aware of the report, along with many other reports covering the need to improve the detection and enforcement of the now more stringent European controls. However, it is important that noble Lords recognise that when dealing with disease, whether in animals or human disease, then our internal controls against the spread of disease are just as important as measures undertaken to prevent diseased meat or other products coming into the country in the first place.

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