'In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 10—
"10A Annual report on animal diseases
The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament in each calendar year a report on measures taken by Government departments and agencies and other public bodies to prevent the importation into the United Kingdom of the diseases mentioned in Schedule 2A.".'.—[Mrs. Ann Winterton.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Annual review of import controls—
'In the 1981 Act the following section is inserted after section 10.
"10A Annual review of import controls
(1) The Ministers shall prepare a report during each financial year reviewing all of the activities of government departments, the Food Standards Agency, local authorities, port health authorities and other relevant public agencies directed to the prevention of the introduction of disease into or within England and Wales through the importation of animals and other things, including their making of orders under section 10 of this Act, assessing the effectiveness of the action taken, and proposing such further action as may, in the opinion of the Ministers, be required to further reduce the risk of disease being imported.
(2) The Ministers shall, as soon as possible after the end of each financial year, lay their report before Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.".'.
I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr. Morley, who has responsibility for animal health, is on the Front Bench, having returned, no doubt triumphantly, from a conference that the Government organised in Belgium on the eradication of foot and mouth disease. A press release on the conference says that the Secretary of State addressed it on the way in which the outbreak developed and was tackled. However, she did not tell the conference the cause of the outbreak, which is one reason why the Opposition have tabled the new clause.
It is not late. It will not have escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that we are not in government; I remind him that both foot and mouth outbreaks, in 1967 and this year, occurred when a Labour Government were in office. In 1967, the relevant Minister handled the matter in an exemplary fashion and, as a result, the very good Northumberland report was produced, which pointed to the way forward for the future. I concede that, sadly, successive Governments have not done enough work on preventing further outbreaks of animal disease from being imported into the country.
The saying "Prevention is better than cure" is echoed by the farming community today, despite the introduction of the Bill, which was conceived in haste to put right legal problems encountered during the foot and mouth epidemic and also to deal with matters relating to scrapie, about which there is no hurry at all. However, the Government have not addressed the real problem facing the country—our vulnerability to future infection. The United Kingdom will be as vulnerable as ever to the importation of animal, plant and even human disease, even after the enactment of the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former Minister and an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament. She is right; in fact she has uttered the words that I would have uttered a little later in my speech; in fact, I probably will still utter them as the point is well worth making again. Well done Devon is all that I have got to say. Would that the Government had tackled the problem as a matter of urgency.
New clause 1 would oblige Ministers to conduct an annual review of the effectiveness of actions by all the agencies concerned to prevent animal disease, including foot and mouth, from being brought into the United Kingdom. We are an island nation; many farmers have asked me why the sea that surrounds us, which should form a protective barrier, has not done so.
Our defences against the importation of disease are minimal. At our airports and seaports, checks on baggage and goods in transit are infrequent, but when they are made, more often than not they reveal illegal imports of food, particularly meat. Many people travel extensively and visitors to the United States of America, Australia or New Zealand cannot fail to be impressed by the extremely tough and thorough precautions undertaken by those countries to minimise the risk of importing disease. I admire the policies of those countries and their actions, which have proved to be extremely successful.
Why should the United Kingdom leave itself wide open to unnecessary risk of disease in the future, and why have the Government not taken any meaningful action to clamp down on illegal imports? I have no doubt that the usual talking shops will have been set up between representatives of the various agencies involved, such as Customs and Excise, the Food Standards Agency, local and port health authorities and the Home Office, in order to find a way in which import controls could be strengthened, but what action has been taken?
My hon. Friend takes the words from my mouth. Answer is there none. What a disgrace. What an insult to the farming community, which has suffered so much as a result of Government incompetence and inaction. How much longer must we wait until the nettle is grasped—
My hon. Friend is right. He is very enthusiastic, and so he should be. The Government's inaction will have been noted by people in the country. They look to the Government to do something to help the situation, instead of doing nothing. I am not sure whether Ministers are prepared to take the necessary action to protect the United Kingdom from a scourge similar to the recent foot and mouth epidemic.
We may never discover the precise cause of the outbreak, mainly because the Government have refused point-blank to hold a full, independent public inquiry. At least the Devon inquiry undertaken by the county council, and to which my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning referred, points us in the right direction and recommends that prevention of disease through importation should be given the highest priority.
Many organisations involved in the rearing of livestock have commented on the present unsatisfactory arrangements. In December 2000 the National Pig Association forwarded comments as evidence to the then Select Committee on Agriculture regarding the Government's handling of the classical swine fever outbreak in August last year. Those comments included criticism of the lack of speed of Government action, and went on:
"The NPA fears that . . . UK pig producers are unreasonably exposed to a repeat outbreak of a disease such as Classical Swine Fever, due to the Government inaction on effective control of the import of contaminated meat."
The association continued with an analysis of the lack of a governmental contingency plan:
"The NPA fears that the Government will wash its hands of the consequent problems, in the event of such an outbreak."
As a result of the classical swine fever outbreak, the NPA had clearly understood the Government's irresponsible attitude to the amount of food imports entering the country, which remains as big a risk today as it was last year or in February 2001.
I hear the hon. Lady's allegations about lack of action, inadequacy and illegal imports, but what firm evidence has she about the scale of illegal imports? What evidence has she that the measures that we have taken are not deterring illegal imports? I accept that if an activity is illegal, one cannot guarantee that it will never occur, but what is the evidence to back up the hon. Lady's allegations leading to all those terrible consequences?
It does not become the Minister to be as complacent as he appears about the serious problem of animal, plant and human diseases that may come into this country in illegally imported meat and meat products. He is right that no Government can guarantee that no disease will enter the country in that way, but I wonder whether he has recently travelled extensively as a private individual—[Interruption.] Would he like to intervene on that point? I think that I heard him mention checks from a sedentary position. What checks?
On the claims that are being made about measures taken in America and Australia, I have been to those countries comparatively recently and I must say that I have not noticed any particular differences from the checks and security in our country. I am not complacent about this matter. Some issues need to be reviewed and we want to do some tightening up. We are and have been doing that, so the claim that no action has been taken is completely wrong.
When the Minister makes his speech, he can outline precisely what action has been taken. Frankly, it does not add up to a row of beans. I remind him that he made the following statement in a written answer:
"The current epidemic has been caused by a specific strain of the foot and mouth virus (PanAsian Strain 0) which has occurred in a number of countries around the world. The precise means of introduction of the virus into Great Britain is unknown and the subject of continuing investigations,"— he can tell us later what those investigations have found so far—
"but is most likely to have been introduced in illegally imported meat or meat products."—[Hansard, 9 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 445W.]
There is a problem, and as I develop my speech, I shall show the hon. Gentleman that the Government have taken no meaningful action whatever.
I was astonished by what the Minister said just now in his intervention. Many years ago, I regularly did business with American companies and travelled to America. Some 10 or 15 years ago, it was a matter of routine that the Americans asked one to declare both in documentary evidence and in person at the airport whether one was carrying any foodstuffs or plant materials. They have sniffer dogs at their airports. The Minister must whisk through the VIP lounge and never see ordinary people.
My hon. Friend makes her point very well and explains the reason why I asked the Minister whether he was travelling as a private individual. I, too, travel to the United States of America, and I do so at least once year. I am very much aware of the measures that that country takes to ensure that visitors do not import any disease through meat or meat products, and I admire it for what it does. I have also had the good fortune to travel to New Zealand and Australia. In New Zealand, they spray the plane. Elsewhere, one has to take off one's shoes. I know that visitors to New Zealand and Australia who have come from a farm or had an address at a farm have been put through checks to the 10th degree. Sniffer dogs can almost tell whether one has eaten an apple on the plane, never mind whether one has brought one into the country.
I, too, have been to the United States and Australia. Indeed, I have worked in both countries and, like my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning, I know how strict their controls are. Does my hon. Friend agree that even if the Minister will not take notice of us, he should take notice of Mr. Banks? On Second Reading, he said:
"As a regular traveller to the United States, I know how vigorously one is questioned there about any products that one is taking into the country. We have no such procedures".—[Hansard, 12 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 620.]
I, too, have been to America—we have reached the moment when we all say where we have been on our holidays. I had to hand over chewed bits of carrot and apple that small children had been eating on the journey. I was delighted to be able to do that. However, the questions that we are asked on entry to the United States are a formality;
I was in America on
My hon. Friend probably knows that the 14 investigations at Heathrow found five tonnes of illegally imported meat. In every example that was drawn to the airport authorities' attention, illegally imported meat had been brought into the country. In some cases, blood was pouring out of suitcases. The authorities would have investigated more cases if they had the money and the facilities. We should debate such matters this afternoon instead of considering ways in which to cull more of our creatures.
I shall ignore that point and get on with my speech.
The Government received another warning about the danger of illegal imports. On
"The issue had to be addressed when baggage handlers at Heathrow refused to handle the suitcases due to the smell and the blood coming out of the bags. Inspections carried out on Nigerian flights on the 7th, 8th and 11th May resulted in 600 kgs of detained foodstuffs."
Mr. Lawrence continues:
"On one flight from Nigeria on 15th May, a check resulted in 2500 kgs being detained from passenger luggage. It contained various bush meats and a large quantity of maggot infested fish both wet and dry. We also recovered one whole dead deer freshly slaughtered in a suitcase."
The mind boggles.
Mr. Lawrence did not receive a reply from the then Minister for some time. In a recent parliamentary answer, the Under-Secretary referred to "improved publicity" to ensure that travellers are aware of import restrictions, and claimed that
"at least 20 per cent."—[Hansard, 29 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 1085W.]
of legal meat imports are being subjected to physical checks. That may be because of the imports from Belgium that were stopped recently. I believe that two or three consignments were stopped because of the checks on legal imports.
As I said earlier, I do not believe that travellers who enter the country are informed that they should not bring in any animal or plant produce, nor are they questioned or required to fill in any forms to say that they are not doing so.
When we come into the arrivals section as ordinary travellers, there are, to the best of my knowledge— I checked when I last went abroad—no big notices telling us what we should or should not bring in. The only evidence of "improved publicity" that I could find in my local airport, Manchester—one of the most successful and best run in the United Kingdom—was one small, peeling poster that had been placed in the departure area rather than in arrivals. That is quite extraordinary and pathetic. I look forward to hearing the Minister outline the precise action taken since February to eliminate illegal imports.
The animal origin legislation is based on EU directive 97/98. The Miscellaneous Products of Animal Origin (Import Conditions) Regulations 1999 were made on
Mr. Lawrence also has proof of the fact that the meats are often contaminated. His company found that one consignment was smuggled through in December 2000 as a cargo of vegetables and undeclared to customs. It was investigated and found to contain 15 dead monkeys and some tortoise legs. Laboratory checks showed a risk of Ebola contamination. Fortunately, that consignment was found, but it is generally acknowledged that the majority of luggage goes unchecked.
I wonder whether the Minister has seen the video prepared by the National Pig Association, which highlights the dangers facing this country from Ebola contamination. Although we are talking about animal health today, in cases such as that it is clear that plant health and human health are also implicated. If Ebola and other viruses about which our doctors know virtually nothing are imported, the effects will be far greater than the devastating effects of the recent foot and mouth outbreak.
"Adequate measures are already in place to control legally presented imports of meat and meat products."
That may well be true; I have mentioned recent finds of legally imported meat of a cheap or substandard nature coming into the country. I wonder whether those checks would also have applied to the chicken imported from Thailand and elsewhere in the far east—reported on the front page of, I think, yesterday's Daily Express—that had been contaminated by pork and was full of water. That chicken was being used by the catering industry. Very strict checks and conditions should be placed on the catering industry and others to prevent the importation of such cheap substandard produce. We have been talking about legally presented imports, but does the Minister choose to disregard those meat imports that are not legally presented? That would appear to be the case from the lack of action taken by the Government.
The Minister's written reply continued:
"Port health authorities and local authorities are requested to undertake checks at port of entry and at premises of destination to ensure that products not eligible for trade are detected."—[Hansard, 4 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 261-62W.]
Will the Minister clarify the divisions of responsibility for food import checks? He says that port health authorities and local authorities are requested to undertake checks, yet the Food Standards Agency also holds responsibility. Will he confirm the exact role it plays in import checks? Will he consider giving that Government agency, which has gained cross-party support for its vigilant attitude to food safety, full overall responsibility, or should a new body be formed to take responsibility for checking for illegal imports?
The National Farmers Union has written to Members, stating that the range of different agencies involved and the undoubted practical problems associated with enforcement are putting the United Kingdom livestock sector under continued threat. Who could argue with that?
My hon. Friend is right. The FSA relates to health, but it also relates to animal health. My point is that there is no joined-up government; it is absolutely disjointed. Various bodies hold various responsibilities—there appears to be no coherent policy whatever. I genuinely believe that the Government must urgently address that matter.
The NFU also questions whether the Government have shown sufficient commitment on the vital issue of illegal imports. Although the union acknowledges that the United Kingdom may never be able to achieve 100 per cent. protection from the import of animal disease
"much more can and must be done to reduce the risk of a re-run of this year's hugely damaging and costly events."
"the risks of a further outbreak remain very high" and we all agree that there may very well be cases before the outbreak is definitely over.
Why, then, are the Government considering legislation that I believe to be hasty and insensitive to the needs of the farming community and that allows the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to plan for future outbreaks? Why do not the Government take preventive action and consider eradicating the possibility of further epidemics by removing the very source of disease through stronger food import controls?
The hon. Lady makes the strong point that, as well as introducing new measures to control future outbreaks, the Bill ought to reduce the likelihood of outbreaks or the rate at which they develop. No doubt she will support my new clauses 9 and 10.
No doubt the hon. Gentleman will support new clause 1, as one good turn deserves another. The point of tabling my new clause is to return us once again to everything that this country has gone through since February and the cost, not just to taxpayers, but to farmers, their families, animals, DEFRA officials and veterinary surgeons. The answer is prevention, which is the first issue we should consider. Through tabling the new clause, I seek from the Minister an indication that the Government are serious.
I am saying that, even if the Act were sufficient, the powers are not being used. I have tabled a new clause that would make the Minister responsible produce an annual report outlining precisely the actions taken. It is a spur to make the Government solve the problem more quickly.
Whatever mechanism is used, action should be taken. The new clause may not be perfect, but it is an honest attempt to raise what I believe to be the most important issue facing the agriculture community and, indeed, people living in the United Kingdom.
Nothing in new clause 1, or indeed new clause 4, would strengthen powers relating to animal health. What we seek is a commitment from the Government to be more open in their measures to crack down on illegal meat imports and deal with the concerns of those in the farming industry, who often describe in anecdotal terms what is happening in this country. Surely, if the Bill seeks to penalise farmers for poor biosecurity, we should seek from the Government a similar undertaking to be as open and honest as possible in all their efforts to ensure that both illegal and legal meat imports are of the highest quality.
That is a sound point. We look to the Government to take the necessary action. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I would have liked the new clause to go much further—but we must be realistic and appreciate that, in the numbers game, it is hardly likely that the Government will accept this modest proposal. I am trying to give them an opportunity to accept it, to demonstrate their acceptance by what they do from now on, and to place in the House a record of what they have done. If by any chance they feel that they have not the necessary powers, they should bear in mind that, as the hon. Gentleman hinted, they could have introduced them in the Bill. They have introduced enough draconian and sweeping powers that run contrary to natural justice. I am amazed that they have not put first things first on this occasion.
Not on this occasion.
The hon. Lady welcomed and endorsed the suggestion by Mr. Thomas that illegal meat imports should be of the highest quality. Can she tell us how we can attain such an elusive goal?
If he said it, no doubt he will wish to correct the impression that he gave. I know the hon. Member for Ceredigion—I know David Taylor as well, of course—and that is not a view that he would ever express or espouse. I shall rush to his defence, and pull out my trusty sword. [Interruption.] There will be no blood on the carpet this afternoon; that would not do. I fear that you are about to rule us out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker: I had better get on.
As I have said, new clause 1 is very modest. An annual review of import controls would ensure that the situation remained under constant appraisal, and—a more urgent requirement—that local authorities and central Government adopted a joined-up and collective approach to import checks. I urge the Government to consider the proposal carefully, and then to implement an annual review with immediate effect. It would cost them nothing apart from a lot of good will, and they would do much good in the process.
We believe that it should be Government policy to defend the high standards of British agriculture, especially those that underpin Britain's exemplary record on animal welfare. Food imports that do not match the standards required of British farmers by law must not be allowed to undercut British produce, and thus undermine British standards.
I urge the Government to ban unfair agriculture imports—not, I hasten to add, imports that are unfair in terms of pricing, but those that have not reached the quality that we expect our farmers to produce. The Government have repeatedly refused to go along that route.
There is a misconception. I have heard it before. A proposal to ban imports that do not meet our standards would be illegal. All imports into this country have to meet the same standards that are applied in relation to the EU: for example, standards on slaughterhouses. It is true that some products and production methods in the United Kingdom are higher than those standards. There are various reasons for that and various choices, but all imported meat has to meet those EU standards. In that case, they are legal. A proposal to ban them would be illegal.
The recent outbreak started in February. If the Government had been the French Government, they would have immediately stuck two fingers in the air—[Interruption.] It may cost them a lot of money, but I bet that our producers will not receive compensation for the lack of business and the terrible difficulties that they have faced because of the French ban on British beef. If foot and mouth had been imported into France, as it was into this country, the French would have immediately, not knowing what the source was—the UK Government do not yet know—ceased the import of meat and meat products from countries where there was endemic foot and mouth. Consumers and farming communities in the UK would have liked that sort of action in order to protect animal health and human health in the UK.
Is not the fallacy in the Minister's argument illustrated by the fact that recently five plants in China have been licensed by the EU to export chicken meat to Europe, yet they have not been properly or fully inspected by EU inspectors? There is no way of knowing whether those meat products will meet the standards required in this country. Whatever the theory may be, in practice those products are coming in and do not meet our standards.
My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally strong point that cannot be refuted. It is disgraceful that there are double standards. What the EU says is not necessarily carried out. I urge those in the catering industry and in supermarket chains, which hold such power over the sale and processing of food, to recall what my hon. Friend has said—not to buy products from those plants and instead to buy from plants in the UK, where the birds have been raised to a good standard of husbandry.
The hon. Lady may be intrigued to know that, during its visit to Brussels and to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, the Select Committee on Agriculture took up that point. Representatives of third-world countries regarded the demands of the EU to inspect as somewhat protectionist, so there is a balance to be reached. It is not as clear-cut as Mr. Paice alleges. A degree of checking goes on. It can always be improved, but the position is not that clear cut.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point. I am not in a position to know whether the plants that he knows about have been inspected properly. I am not so concerned about whether China believes that we are trying to protect our market. If we are, we are doing so for good reasons of animal husbandry and for the quality of the food produced.
I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his travels. I understand that the Select Committee will be going even further afield in due course. No doubt in the Tea Room he will tell me of his experiences. As he travels, not as an ordinary person, but as a member of a Select Committee, I hope that he will take the opportunity to go around every airport, open his eyes and look at what other countries do. If he goes to New Zealand, or even perhaps South Africa and the United States, that will be a very good experience for him. What he sees will bear out everything that I have said.
I think that I have spoken for far too long—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Hear, hear? Everyone has been asking me to give way and I have been very generous. If I had not given way, Members would have been critical. I apologise if I have spoken for too long, but I heartily recommend the new clause. It is not necessarily perfect. It does not necessarily go far enough but it puts down a solid marker as to what the Government might do to bring immediate improvement to the dreadful situation that faces the UK as a result of the importation of illegal meat and meat products.
In health policy, whether it is about human or animal health, the essence is to prevent rather than to cure. Any health policy should include measures to prevent the disease, rather than deal with the symptoms. That is a positive way forward. As a result, I support new clause 4.
It is important that we take this issue forward. The terrible events of foot and mouth over the summer show that we must do something to make controls on imports much tighter. We do not yet know how foot and mouth came into this country. There are three inquiries on the go but they have not published their reports yet. The most important one in relation to this issue is the inquiry about lessons to be learned, which is chaired by Dr. Iain Anderson. I believe that it starts tomorrow and will publish within six months of starting, but its terms of reference are important:
"To make recommendations for the way in which Government should handle any future major animal disease outbreak, in the light of the lessons identified from the handling of the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain.
In its first recommendation, the Devon inquiry made the same point: the lesson to be learned is about the protection of this country from the invasion of disease. That recommendation said:
"We therefore find that methods of import control must be tightened to the highest international standards and if necessary be the subject of new legislation. It is important that new powers are implemented properly at ports and airports with the increase in staffing that that implies."
Another inquiry also supported that view. Following the 1967 outbreak, the Northumberland inquiry recommended that we should tighten and have greater security on import controls at ports and airports to stop disease coming in. The Government have chosen to introduce the Bill before any of the inquiries that are examining the 2001 outbreak report, but in the light of recommendations from those other notable reports, it is right that new clause 4 should be included in the legislation.
We are not sure where the FMD outbreak came from. It is highly likely—but it is only speculation—that it came from the importation of illegal meat that entered the food chain, possibly because certain farmers did not observe the recommendations on the use of swill. As we heard from Mrs. Winterton, other countries appear to have tighter controls, and we have rehearsed the reports of holiday entries into north America, which has greater questioning, monitoring and controls. According to the hon. Lady, it seems that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee may have the opportunity to visit New Zealand, and it would look carefully at the import controls in place in Auckland should it do so.
We do not seem to have those import controls at our ports and airports and it is right to put them into legislation. However, to do so, we need more resources. The current officials of the port animal health teams do not have sufficient resources to carry out the checks that would be necessary. It is right that we should put the resources in. One can always call for more resources, but if we are seeking to improve our biosecurity, they will be necessary. At the moment, through the Bill and other measures, we ask farmers to look to biosecurity when there is an outbreak of disease, whether of classical swine fever or FMD.
The new clause would provide for an annual report, and it would automatically follow that better import controls could not be instituted without resources. If we are to have good national biosecurity, we need to put the resources in. The Minister has rightly said that we need better awareness among the travelling public. However, the problem lies not with the naive travelling public, but with those people who deliberately import meat illegally. The odd traveller who has a deer or a tortoise in his suitcase is something that we might want to check, but we do not need the new measures for him. The problem is those people who are deliberately engaging in illegal trade and bringing substandard food products into this country.
I agree with much of what the hon. Lady says, but she cannot be allowed to get away with asserting that we should be worried only about those people who, to paraphrase her remarks, are in it commercially. We have heard many stories of people bringing large quantities of meat into Heathrow in private suitcases, and they presumably do not do so on spec but have a destination for it. The problem goes further than that. What should be done about the countless number of much smaller items such as ham sandwiches and other consumer items that are brought in? [Interruption.] Before the hon. Lady seeks to ridicule that question, I assure her that if she tried to take such items into Australia or the US she would not get past the first post. We should take the same care in this country.
We need a risk assessment. We cannot absolutely eradicate all risk of people bringing in the last little bit of a ham sandwich tucked into their pockets. In the examples that we have heard about, of suitcases going round Heathrow with blood dripping from them, the system has caught up with the travellers responsible and prevented such illegal importation. What we need to do now is to provide more resources, and an annual report, to help to tackle the problem of people who import illegally as a commercial business, in the way that Customs and Excise tackle the illegal importation of alcohol and tobacco products. We need a proportionate response—that phrase was much used in Committee—and I am much more concerned about larger quantities of meat that might enter the food chain than about the naive traveller with his accidentally imported bit of ham sandwich.
I draw the hon. Lady's attention to the conclusions of the Department's scientists that the outbreak of swine fever in the late summer and early autumn of last year was caused by the illegal importation of a pig product, assumed to be a pork pie or a ham sandwich. The consequences for the pig industry in East Anglia were devastating and that is why we cannot ignore that relatively small problem.
May I answer the first intervention before I do so? We have to target resources, but my concern is that we need more systematic and rigorous controls at the point of entry so that we can catch people who import, illegally and for commercial purposes, meat that will enter the human food chain. We have already caught many of the other offenders.
I draw the hon. Lady's attention to a report published today by the Health and Safety Executive. It is called "Reducing risks, protecting people". On page 67, under the heading
"Comparison of risks against costs", it says:
"In comparing costs against risks the Health and Safety Executive, when regulating, will be governed by the principle that there should be a transparent bias on the side of health and safety . . . There is a need to err on the side of safety in the computation of health and safety costs".
For duty holders,
"the test of 'gross disproportion'" should be seen in that light.
Is not that evidence that the Government recognise that the potential costs of getting it wrong are so huge that it is worth a bit of investment—a favourite word of the Government—"up-front" to ensure that we get it right?
There will always be some level of risk, especially on food issues. We seek to improve the biosecurity of the nation through the Bill, but we cannot have a 100 per cent. risk-free situation and say that nothing will ever break through the barrier that we are trying to erect. There is always a cost to set against every benefit. I am arguing for greater and more targeted resources and an annual report, because it is obvious that the present measures have failed us in the past.
The debate is slightly off target, because it is not important that we decide today what constitutes the greatest risk to animal health, be it a ham sandwich or an illegal cargo of Brazilian meat entering via the Republic of Ireland. What we need to decide is whether it is right and proper that the Government should tell us annually what steps they have taken to crack down on such offences. It is on that basis that we could hold the Government to account. We need that open accountability and auditing of the Government's work. The hon. Lady is answering the points well, but the debate is not concentrating on the crucial issue.
I give great thanks to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. This is a sub-debate which does not go to the heart of the matter. The real point is that we want an annual report and more targeted resources. More information should be given to the travelling public, but we want the Bill to improve control measures at ports and airports and to strengthen biosecurity.
Most hon. Members have received correspondence from dismayed farmers and people in the agriculture industry, expressing much the same sentiments as have been heard in the past hour. Many people involved in this exercise recognise that we need stronger and better regulation of food imports. As has been pointed out, the new clauses offer a mechanism for keeping matters under constant and vigilant review.
People who work at our ports and airports would welcome having the matter raised regularly, as that would ensure that they were given the support needed to do their jobs effectively. Financial support is important, but so, for instance, are proper notices and leaflets. They would bring the matter to people's attention before they disembark in this country, and they represent a cheap way to remind people to take care.
That is an important point. Some options are simple and cheap. For example, people checking in luggage at airports are asked whether they packed the bag themselves. Similarly, a few simple questions when people return to the country would remind them of the portion of pork pie or sandwich that they have in their possession. They do not bring such material in deliberately, but an appropriate question and the correct signage could be helpful.
I agree. That would command the support of most people. However, some ports have better facilities than others. Early on in the foot and mouth crisis, I spent five or six weeks submitting requests to visit ports to look at their facilities. Eventually, it was agreed that I could visit Felixstowe.
Felixstowe has impressive facilities for checking imports. Refrigeration units allow refrigerated containers to be checked, and a computerised system checks containers' provenance. In addition, the port has many expert staff, who do admirable work. Trading standards officers, the port health authority and the Customs and Excise work together as they check containers. That was impressive.
I wonder, however, whether I was allowed to see Felixstowe because it would make me think that other ports' facilities were equally impressive. I suspect that they are not. People who deliberately try to introduce illegal meats are unlikely to bring them through the port at which there is the greatest likelihood that they will be caught. They are more likely to go for the weakest link in the chain of security around the country.
We need to ensure that all airports and seaports have the proper facilities. Improving security arrangements at one port will only put more pressure on other ports and other forms of entry. I hope that the Government will recognise that part of the war against foot and mouth disease and other diseases involves improving ports' facilities. Officials' ability to do their work properly needs to be reviewed regularly.
I was interested to read recently that European legislation in the new year will try to make the whole of Europe a fortress against third-country imports. A clear problem at Felixstowe involved imports from European countries which had originally been part of third-country imports into those countries. Officials' ability to check those imports was insignificant.
It is a weakness in the system that imports from Thailand, Brazil, South America and Asia, for instance, can go to other European countries before being passed on to Britain. Such imports are subject to very little checking. I do not know what input Britain has had into the discussions of the forthcoming European legislation, but it is a major problem. Being an island, Britain has more ability to protect itself than other countries. I hope that we have contributed to discussion of the introduction of that legislation and made sure that we do not suffer from third-country imports that pass through another European country.
The new clauses have been tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The proposals that they contain do not go much beyond what the Government were doing anyway. If there had been regular reviews or reports after the 1967 outbreak, some of the measures that we now believe to be necessary might have been introduced earlier. If those matters had been raised in a debate or report, we might have been alerted beforehand to some of the problems at the heart of this year's foot and mouth crisis.
If things like the movement of animals—and especially of sheep—the growth of market traders, and the conditions in markets had featured in previous annual reports, we might not have had to face some of the problems encountered this year.
The new clauses are based on common sense. If the Government are undertaking regular reports and reviews, there is no reason why—given their new-found transparency and openness about the actions that they are taking—they should not publish their findings and present them to Parliament. A proper annual review could take into account the new information arising from the inquiries that are in hand. It would allow the House to adapt to new circumstances and to ensure that new forms of security and defence were established. In that way, we could avoid subjecting the country to more disease than might reasonably be expected.
I hope that even if he cannot support the new clauses, the Minister will support the desire expressed in them for openness and transparency so that a regular review is not just seen by a Department but laid before Parliament. That would ensure that we are vigilant in future, bearing in mind the enormous cost of foot and mouth for the country and the way in which it has ravaged our rural economy. Producing an annual review and report would be an inexpensive and reasonable way of doing that, and I hope that the Minister will support the new clause.
I congratulate the official Opposition on catching us up with regard to new clause 1. If they had got a move on in Committee, we might have had this debate then. I remember that the new clause was first down in my name and that of my hon. Friend Diana Organ. However, as an altruistic soul, I do not claim ownership. I am looking forward to what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say. There is a unanimity of purpose in dealing with imports and, more particularly, improving co-ordination of the way in which we deal with them.
In a sense, I am pleased that the official Opposition are not aiming to strengthen existing legislation on controlling imports. I have talked to the National Farmers Union, and have been led to believe that the Animal Health Act 1981 is sufficiently strong to control imports of illegal and unacceptable foodstuffs into the country. It is a question of co-ordinating and monitoring the situation and, as new clause 4 specifies, publishing a report of what is going on.
I hope that my hon. Friend can tell us what is happening. There is a need to tighten things up, although we might be 20 years or more too late, as the Northumberland report highlighted. It is amazing what people can find in the Northumberland report as worthy of prioritisation. When I look through it, I do not always find some of the things that it is said to have mentioned. It is a good report, but it is about a different outbreak at a different time. We can learn from it but we cannot treat it as tablets of stone and implement every recommendation as if things have not moved on, because they have.
So many organisations are involved in controlling imports that we must consider the issue carefully. They include Customs and Excise, the Home Office, the Food Standards Agency and local authorities. Two-tier systems—or three-tier, like mine—have district environmental health officers and county council trading standards officers and, last but not least, the port health authorities.
I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman praying in aid the excellent work of the trading standards officers in Gloucestershire county council. However, I recall that only yesterday, in Westminster Hall, he was advocating abolishing Gloucestershire county council.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to say that that is why I am calling for unitary authorities. In that way, we might have some real co-ordination, with different officers working in the same way. I am in no way being derogatory about the excellent work they do, but rationalising the services makes sense. These proposals are about improving co-ordination and making sure that people work together.
Mr. Breed hit the nail on the head, which he does more often than not. We are not simply talking about the main ports of entry. Not a lot of people know this, but I have in my constituency a port called Sharpness. On a busy week, about 10 ships come in to it. I am loth to remind my hon. Friend the Minister, but we had an immediate rapport about this when I came to this House. My hon. Friend told me that he had managed to negotiate an improvement in the herring quota for my constituency. The only problem was that although I have a port in my constituency, I do not have a herring fleet, and I put him right later on. It appeared in Punch, and is a legitimate source of interest between us.
Sharpness is the epitome of the problem. It is a very small port, although its tonnage is growing. The idea is to have permanent people on the port side looking at every cargo that comes in. We have foodstuffs coming in, but nothing mainstream. New clause 4 puts forward ideas for improving that. Given that unity of purpose, my hon. Friend the Minister would be churlish, to put it mildly, if he did not allow us to consider ways in which to improve the situation. We can talk about that, in this place or the other place, and about how to use the existing legislation more effectively.
There is an issue here concerning our relationship with the European Union. I had the opportunity to speak on this matter about a month ago when we considered the potential of the European food standards agency. In many respects, our Food Standards Agency, introduced by a Labour Government, has set the trend for other countries within Europe and further afield. They regularly draw on the evidence of the Food Standards Agency to see what good work is being done. We cannot introduce the sort of measures that we want in isolation from Europe. Whatever our view of Europe, we must accept that much of our trade is there and that much of it will come through Europe, whether it is legal or—dare I say—illegal. We must work with other EU countries, and that should be done through the Food Standards Agency. Whether we are talking about our Food Standards Agency being at the forefront or working in tandem with the European agency, I do not mind.
If the Food Standards Agency is to be the lead agency, as looks highly likely, I accept that the Food Standards Agency should report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as well as the Department of Health. That is one of the only recommendations that I made when looking at DEFRA's terms of reference. We can have that argument another time. How do we empower the Food Standards Agency, what do we expect it to do, how do we monitor its performance and how do we expect the other Government agencies and Departments to relate to it?
Finally, when we talk about farmers improving their biosecurity, there is a trade-off with the need to know that there is a so-called level playing field. It will be more level if farmers know that there is a regime that not only deals with imports but tells people what it does. Because there are various agencies trying hard to do what they can, it is never completely clear who is taking the lead and what they are doing.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to allay a lot of fears. The debate has been important; I am glad that it has come at the start of the Report stage rather than getting squeezed off the end, as happened before. This is an important point, and we will have done a great deal of good if we make sure that things are tightened up and we all know where we are going.
Perhaps I might tempt the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to save the House further debate on this subject. I should be delighted if he would intervene to tell me whether he agrees or disagrees with the proposal. New clauses 1 and 4 focus centrally on the production of a report, and some cogent arguments have already been put by hon. Members in support of that idea. Would the Minister like to stop me going on for too long by telling me whether he agrees or disagrees with the proposal?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who—as ever—goes straight to the point. Obviously hon. Members want me to respond, but I cannot do so in an intervention. I can only say that I think that the case is being made well and I am very sympathetic in principle to the idea of the report as well as to the general principle of being open and transparent. However, I am not sure whether the Bill is the right vehicle for that, as the issue is one of imports—not animal health. However, I am prepared to take the proposals seriously and to consider whether we can do something along those lines.
I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention. When he appeared before the Select Committee and we probed him, as many have done, as to why the measure had been so hastily and speedily introduced, he reminded us—including those of us who have served in the ministerial area that he occupies with such distinction—that legislative opportunities do not come often. However, there are precedents that might give him comfort as regards his worry that the Bill is not the right legislative vehicle: the exercise rewriting in plain English the UK tax laws resulted from Parliament agreeing, in a Finance Bill, that an important report be produced. That may offer the Minister a degree of comfort. That is one reason for the request in both new clauses that a report on action to deal with illegal imports, in the first instance, be laid before the House.
Westminster Hall offers us more opportunities to debate such reports, which would also enable the Select Committee to go through such matters. By the time the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will have resolved his internal struggle as to whether he will sign up to the proposal to produce such a report—whether enshrined in law, as I should prefer because that would guarantee that it was done, or undertaken outside the provisions of the Bill.
As other new clauses and amendments rightly point out, it is also important to develop a strategic approach towards not only foot and mouth but a range of potentially lethal and infectious diseases—as suggested in schedule 2—that threaten us in the United Kingdom. The proposed report would assist in the development of a biosecurity strategy to which all parties could make a contribution.
When Mr. Drew spoke to his new clause, he talked about the Food Standards Agency. I do not think that is the right lead body: in essence, the issue relates to animal health and, as many hon. Members have already pointed out, it involves many governmental and non-governmental agencies. DEFRA would offer the best co-ordinating point for all those elements, so that each can make their contribution to the production of the report.
The report could also be developed as an action document for a wider biosecurity network. I have studied the information issued by DEFRA in its briefing: "The Animal Health Bill—frequently asked questions". The strategy for dealing with importation covers little more than one A4 page. Most of it describes various forms of publicity. The most far-sighted statement is:
"We are also looking at a wide range of other options to ensure the rules on imports are enforced effectively and efficiently. These include, for example, the possible use of sniffer dogs and x-ray machines."
I am sure that the Minister will tell us that much more is really going on, but why not deal with the problem rigorously by producing an annual public report? The Minister might have been on his way back from Brussels and thus unable to listen to "Farming Today" when a spokesman was talking about changes in EU legislation. Those changes may in due course be relevant, but we cannot wait until then. The spokesman referred to the areas where there are risk factors for foot and mouth alone: in Russia, the middle east, north Africa, Asia and south America. We could add to those factors the variants for the possible importation of suspect material: illegal immigrants, tourists, legitimate immigrants—one could go on, but this is neither the time nor the place for a debate on all those factors. Given the complexities, however, there is a real need for the Minister to sign up to the production of a report that could form part of a proper biosecurity strategy to deal with those problems.
We should not let people forget the foot and mouth outbreak. Although the previous one was in 1967, the cases of swine fever and other diseases show that it may not be long before there is another outbreak. It is better that we are rigorously prepared; the report would make a contribution to that.
The Minister will be aware that, in Committee and during today's debate, I have drawn his attention to the first conclusion of Professor Mercer's inquiry into foot and mouth in Devon. It is an indictment of the Government that, in drawing up primary legislation, on Second Reading and in Committee, they flatly refused to address the urgent need to ensure that action is taken to deal with imports. We must do that if any lesson is to be learned from the recent foot and mouth outbreak.
In his evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Minister acknowledged:
"The legal imports were never responsible for this outbreak. We do not really know what has been responsible . . . it was probably some form of illegal import."
If that is his view, it beggars belief that—on the precautionary principle—the Government have included no provisions that address that problem. What is worse, when they were presented with reasonable amendments in Committee, they refused to accept them and voted against them. New clause 1 offers us the last sliver of a chance to extract from the Government a tangible piece of documentary evidence as to how they are dealing with a clearly perceived problem: the most likely cause—in the absence of other evidence—of the recent foot and mouth outbreak.
I support the new clause. However, umpteen glossy Government reports pass through the House, so I hope that, if the Minister is amenable to the suggestions and produces an annual report, he will not see it as a soft option. The report will need to give tangible and quantifiable evidence and to demonstrate year-on-year progress. It must be devoid of any of the usual spin doctor waffle—the matter is important and it deserves better treatment than that. The report will need to be statistically—
I have a certain sneaking affection for the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: "Ooh!"]—and I have tried every course. On Second Reading, I went out of my way to say nice things about him. Throughout Committee, I read him interesting extracts from publications—but now there is no more Mrs. Nice Guy. I shall lay it on the line: as my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack correctly pointed out, we are talking about animal disease. Clearly, there is a read-across from our concerns about the danger that imports present and the spread of animal diseases in this country to harmful human diseases and human health risks.
As time goes by, there may well be communality between the procedures that are put in place to address both issues, but the Bill deals specifically with animal disease, and it is on that basis that the Minister should recognise that—although he accepted not a signal amendment in Committee from any party or, indeed, his own Back Benchers—now is his chance. Christmas is coming, and he should remember the lowing animals around the manger. Now is the time for the Minister to show the softer side of his nature and support new clause 1.
At the start of what I hope will be a short contribution, may I clear up any confusion that may have been caused in Leicestershire because of my earlier remarks? Of course, I wanted to refer to legal meat imports. It is important to realise that legal and illegal meat imports present a risk to animal health. As has been rightly said, there is a public health issue as well. Certainly, all of us who are here to serve, to protect and to provide services to the public should be concerned when we hear of the cases involving Ebola-carrying monkeys.
I simply want to take this opportunity to encourage the Minister to accept either new clause 1 or new clause 4, because there is a great deal to be said for them. A bit of politicking has gone on, which is quite natural, and the Government have been accused of being rather lackadaisical in their attitude to illegal meat imports. However, when I met representatives of the county committee of the Farmers Union of Wales in my constituency last Friday, they told me that they were being asked to do an awful lot to improve and maintain biosecurity. They pointed out that they had to face the financial penalties for not reaching the Government's standards, and they simply said, "Ask the Government what they are doing for us." They wanted to know what the Government are doing to protect their industry and farming communities from illegal meat imports.
Legal and illegal meat imports involve an economic cost that affects how we try to get our local farmers to sell their produce successfully. The point that the farmers wanted me to get across—I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so—is that they want the Government to show clearly how they are checking meat imports, ensuring that higher public standards are meeting consumers' concerns and weeding out illegal meat imports.
The FUW would like an annual report to be published to show what percentage of meat imports are checked and at which locations those checks take place. I accept that those checks take place at large ports such as Felixstowe, but we also heard about the smaller ports such as that in the Stroud constituency, as well as Fishguard and Swansea, where such checks are not carried out regularly and where curious meat imports end up. South American beef is sent to the Republic of Ireland, somehow acquires EU status and is then imported into this country. We would like an annual report to explain how such things occur.
If the Minister does not accept either new clause, I hope that he will at least undertake to produce a report. If he does that, I would still commend new clause 4 to him. Despite the virtues of new clause 1, by which Conservative Members try to address similar aims, the advantage of new clause 4 to the Minister is that its terms are much more detailed and thorough. It states which agencies should be covered by an annual report and casts its net a little wider than just the narrow confines of the Bill. We seek a wider-ranging report on animal health issues that might be addressed not only by the Bill, but by the actions of other Government agencies and Departments—for example, the Food Standards Agency under the Department of Health.
There are great advantages in both new clauses, but new clause 4 has the added advantage that the National Assembly for Wales would receive a copy of the report. Two serious animal diseases—brucellosis and tuberculosis—are dealt with as animal health matters by the National Assembly, not by the Minister here. Plaid Cymru would like to amend the Bill and suggested some changes on Second Reading, although not in Committee because we did not get to that point. Under amendment No. 19—if we ever get there—we shall try to give the National Assembly greater powers to deal with animal health issues.
Indeed, the National Assembly's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee has said that it wants such powers, but it wants to have them through secondary legislation, which is a slightly different way from the one I would advocate. All that has the virtue that the National Assembly should receive a copy of such an annual report and debate it, and it should be able to suggest any improvements to primary legislation that are needed to crack down on illegal meat imports.
I hope that the Minister will either undertake to produce such a report, or, even better, accept one of the new clauses. However, whatever happens, I hope that he will accept that the farming community and the public need to see an annual report from the Government in which they set out the steps that they are taking to ensure that there is no further outbreak of foot and mouth, or any other serious animal health problem, in this country. I hope that the Government will take all necessary steps to ensure that no such outbreak occurs and that they will be openly accountable.
Mr. Thomas referred in his opening remarks to a point that I want to make. I endorse what he said about the pressure that is properly put on farmers to improve their biosecurity. The vast majority of farmers realise that more can be done, but probably those who realise what can be done have already done it—that is the nature of such things. However, the need for biosecurity is recognised and accepted by the industry.
Alongside that, the Government have been making noises during the past few months, if not years, about farmers taking increased responsibility—using insurance mechanisms or whatever—for the consequences of animal disease. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to start with that issue because it behoves the Government to do their bit to minimise the risks against which farmers must take their own biosecurity measures.
As my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack and my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning and other hon. Members have said, the advantage of an annual report is that it would give the House and others the opportunity to find out what was happening. In itself, it would solve nothing. In theory, an annual report could say that nothing had been done and that could go on year after year, but we all know that the reality is that such exposure of the actions taken, or not taken, would result in improvement.
It is worth making the point that when the House passed the Food Standards Act 1999, about which I spoke on behalf of the Opposition, we tried very hard to give the FSA the responsibility for monitoring the standards of imported food. I recognise that that issue relates to human health, rather than animal health, but, as several hon. Members have rightly said, there is a tremendous amount of conjunction between those two issues. Of course, some diseases affect humans and other animals.
I make the aside, but it is an important one, that if we are facing climate change and a gradual warming of this part of the world—most people now accept that that is happening—we shall be increasingly at risk of diseases that have not yet reached these shores. We are dealing not only with known problems, but with those that might arise in future. It is a great shame that the Government strongly resisted making the FSA responsible for import controls, for example.
I also want to refer briefly to the world trade in food. I readily accept that we are debating whether an annual report should be published on how we address the animal issues that relate to imported foods, but we need to return to the point about new legislation that the Minister made in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. Of course, the Minister is right to say that, strictly speaking, food can be moved freely in the European Union, but I remind him that there is a treaty article—it was 36, but it now has another number—that allows any Government to impose import controls for reasons of human or animal health or welfare. The power can therefore be used if necessary. The power's use is considered by the European Court of Justice, and France used it over BSE. As a result of decisions made at the European Council, the court decided that its use in that case went over the top.
In an intervention, I referred to food imports from China and the increasing amount of meat imports, including poultrymeat, that come from Brazil and Thailand. We therefore need to question whether the controls exercised by the EU on our behalf are sufficient. I hope that an annual report would be able to refer to the implementation of the European controls.
It has been argued that the developing world would see the introduction of certain standards as a trade barrier. Like most Conservative Members, I am in favour of free trade as long as it is fair trade. The non-governmental organisations that assist the developing world frequently use the term "fair trade", and I have no qualms about the concept. However, if standards are imposed in this country or in Europe, we cannot have fair trade if products that do not meet those standards are allowed into the marketplace. The Government or the Commission must either prevent such imports or provide public support to domestic producers to compensate them for the extra costs that would be imposed on them.
A couple of months ago, the Minister created agricultural headlines when he expressed his belief that subsidies were doomed and would go. I do not want to enter that debate now, but his view hardly suggests that the Government are willing to set out the compensatory approach that I have just described. As Mr. Drew said, we must recognise the importance of the famous level playing field for imports.
The two main apostles of the free market are the United States and Australia. Although we can argue about whether they are as white as white as they sometimes pretend, the fact is that their import controls on food products are extreme while the controls in this country are a joke. During the summer recess, I went to Australia with colleagues from both sides of the House and, when we arrived, our bags were searched and we had to take our shoes off.
Of course it was because of foot and mouth. However, we were struck by how seriously Australia took the issue. Accidentally or not, there was no way in which one was able to bring in any food product however small. Until and unless we adopt such policies in this country and throughout Europe, we shall continue to face the dangers associated with the import of foodstuffs.
When I referred to the outbreak of swine fever in East Anglia, the Minister said that his scientists had concluded that it was probably—the case cannot be absolutely proven—caused by an illegal import or an import of pigmeat in some form or other, probably a ham sandwich, from a country where the far-eastern strain of classical swine fever is endemic. As we do not allow pigmeat imports from any of those countries, the import of this product would have been illegal.
If the scientists are correct—I have no reason to doubt their findings—the word "probably" becomes terribly important. The precautionary principle applies and I am sure that the Minister, who is a reasonable man, will agree that "probably" is sufficient to justify precautionary measures.
Despite that case, I have seen no evidence that suggests that controls have been improved at our sea ports or airports. I hope that the Minister will tell me that I am wrong and will point to the range of measures that the Government have enforced since the veterinary report into swine fewer was produced to show that significant improvements have been made. I suspect that he will not be able to do that, and that reinforces the case for the publication of an annual report.
The Minister was impressive in his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. The hon. Gentleman showed that he was open minded and, even if he cannot make a commitment in the next few minutes, I stress to him that we can make further progress on this matter in another place. I hope that he will undertake that this crucial issue will be considered there. No one has spoken in this debate against the proposal in the new clause, and I hope that he will appreciate that.
I have opposed the Bill since its introduction and the only redeeming feature in it would be the inclusion of new clause 1. The Bill is draconian and remains unamended. It is extremely worrying in every way.
When the Minister was in Brussels yesterday, he will have heard about the new vaccination testing that will allow the tests to differentiate between vaccinated and infected animals. That means that vaccination will become a more effective tool in combating foot and mouth. Although there is no demand for a general prophylactic vaccination of all livestock, it could at least be used as a ring-fenced measure. However, for that to be viable, the tests would have to be fully validated and international rules for the trade in meat from treated animals would have to be changed. Perhaps that is what we should be debating today.
Mr. Byrne, the European Commissioner responsible for foot and mouth and food safety, made the point that he wanted all new proposals to focus on improvements in livestock management. He warned:
"This will require improved identification and traceability" and would lead to more restrictions on animal movements. More resources could also be devoted to stopping illegal imports of contaminated meat.
If we adopted new clause 1 and could move away from the concept of slaughter, a huge part of the Bill would become obsolete. If we could focus on preventing the import of disease and not on the 5 million animals that were slaughtered, we would be doing something positive and not concentrating on passing a draconian Bill.
I have examined other parts of the Bill and hoped that science would throw light on them. It did, because one of my constituents was the first to be genotype-tested for scrapie. [Hon. Members: "Not the sheep?"] Mrs. Sue Farquhar will be grateful to hon. Members for pointing out that it was her flock of Shropshire sheep that were genotype-tested. She is from Hansnett farm in Canon Frome and, in an article in Farmers Weekly a few weeks ago, she and her husband advocated that all sheep owners should have their flocks scrapie tested. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that that was a positive suggestion.
However, Mrs. Farquhar rang me yesterday in some distress. The results that she had been promised would take two weeks to arrive came back four weeks later and 80 per cent. of them were wrong.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. If it were accepted, new clause 1 would be the only reason to support the Bill. If it is not accepted, we shall need to consider all the different reasons why the scrapie tests have been invalidated. That is why I may have strayed briefly from the point. However, I feel that if I cannot mention the matter, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will have let down my constituent, but worse than that, I will have let down all livestock owners in the UK—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall return to the new clause and, in particular, to the point that it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that they do not allow the importation of any new disease. Whether or not they decide to eradicate existing diseases is by the by, as you rightly pointed out, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I shall close, then, with the thought that the Bill's drafting and its draconian elements, and the fact that I have been unable to tell the Minister about scrapie, mean that it is essential that we support new clause 1, and I hope that Labour Members will do so.
I shall start where my hon. Friend Mr. Paice left off—with the difference between the Government's talk and their action. Just this morning, I was speaking to a leading figure in the pig industry, who said:
"The Government has done nothing that would give anyone any confidence that a new outbreak isn't incubating right now."
[Interruption.] I think that I heard the Minister say that it is not true. If it is not true, the Government are failing to communicate what they are doing, because that is the pig industry's impression. I have been in the House only a short time, and sitting on the Public Accounts Committee week after week, hearing tales of the Government getting things wrong, I have been particularly struck by the fact that one of the most important functions of Government is to identify and manage risks. The risk that we face from illegal animal imports, which new clause 1 does something to address, is extremely serious, and the Government failed even to mention it when introducing the Bill, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning said.
This country has been exposed to the risk of many diseases from imported products over the years. We have had foot and mouth from Argentina, swine fever from Denmark and the Netherlands, enzootic bovine leukosis from Canada and maedi visna from Iceland, and I could go on. Indeed, my constituency was heavily affected by classical swine fever. Irrespective of whether new primary legislation is needed, what the Government are doing to co-ordinate the various agencies and to ensure that their powers are being properly used is exceptionally important.
As Mr. Drew pointed out, many agencies are involved. Customs and Excise is responsible for controls on the international movement of all goods. Local authorities are responsible for inland checks on illegal food products, including those that have been illegally imported. Port health authorities are responsible for border checks on imported foods. The Meat Hygiene Service is responsible for enforcing hygiene controls on meat imported into licensed UK cutting plants. Again, I could go on. There is a perception, which is borne out by reality, that there is no, or at best insufficient, cohesion between those bodies.
The Government recognise that. I am told that an interdepartmental taskforce is reviewing the co-ordination of responsibilities. On Second Reading, the Minister referred to that, saying that he did not think that there was a need for primary legislation, but that
with various agencies. That was a month ago, and I am not sure how much action has taken place since then. People want action and change, not simply talk.
The National Farmers Union acknowledges that, theoretically, the necessary legislative powers already exist. It goes on to say:
"However, we believe that there is an urgent need for a far more comprehensive review of the overall framework and resourcing of the UK's system of import controls to ensure their effective implementation.
Such a review should include a fundamental examination of the activity and responsibilities of central government, its agencies and local government in order to ensure coordinated activity and an effective import control regime".
It cannot be the case that we now have an effective import control regime, or we would not be spending so much time talking about the issue today. The regime cannot be effective when so many industry bodies are flagging up the fact that they think it is not.
The National Pig Association, which is of great interest to me because of the pig farming that is undertaken in my constituency, said:
"It is likely that both outbreaks"— foot and mouth disease and classical swine fever—
"started as a result of illegal imports of meat. There is an urgent need for the Government to act to reduce the risk of further outbreaks of imported diseases."
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the Devon foot and mouth inquiry, which is, perhaps, one of the most important pieces of evidence that has come to light so far. It is the first independent, or at least quasi-independent, review of the crisis. Its conclusion is so important that I should like to make sure that it is all entered on to the record. In paragraph 1.1 of its preliminary findings, the inquiry says:
"While it is certain that the disease entered this county via sheep bought by a Devon dealer from Longtown market in Cumbria, how it entered Britain is still a matter of conjecture. What is clear is that food is different from other internationally traded commodities and must be treated as such. It is fundamental to our existence, perishable and climate sensitive. No country or region can hope to meet consumer demand entirely from within its own boundaries. All of which means that while food traded internationally and within national borders is inevitable, it requires sensitive handling and rigorous bio-security. It was suggested to the inquiry that import controls of meat and other livestock products at the points of entry are inadequate and below the standard in countries free from Foot and Mouth."
That is why the inquiry goes on, in its first finding, in paragraph 1.2, to conclude:
"We therefore find that methods of import control must be tightened to the highest international standards and if necessary be the subject of new legislation. It is important that new powers are implemented promptly at ports and airports with the increase in staffing that that implies."
I referred earlier to the report of the Health and Safety Executive, "Reducing Risks, Protecting People". If we were to approach the risk management of imported diseases and related health and safety issues in the same way that manufacturers approach safety in their plants, we would have what are known as hazard analysis critical control points, or HACCPs. Imports are an obvious critical point of entry for disease into UK agriculture, but when introducing the Bill, the Government did not, despite the recommendations of the Devon inquiry, which my hon. Friend pointed out, even mention them.
Earlier this week The Daily Telegraph reported that there has been a new outbreak of Ebola in west Africa. That is, of course, a matter for human as well as animal health. Ebola has a fatality rate of about 70 per cent. It is suspected, although no one knows for certain, that it is carried by bats and ground rodents. Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Wiggin, in the light of such reports it behoves the Government to examine seriously whether the resources devoted to controls at airports and ports of entry are adequate. Customs and Excise rakes in about £100 billion a year on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. It beggars belief that if the risk of a disease entering the country were sufficiently high, it would not be worth spending a considerable proportion of that sum to increase the security and biosecurity of people in this country.
New clause 1 is a modest step in the right direction in that it at least places an onus on the Government to report back to the House on their actions. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister will consider what has been said in this debate. On Second Reading, virtually every Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Member who spoke referred to the need for greater controls on imports. It is time that the Government took the issue much more seriously, and they could do so by accepting new clause 1.
We have spent two hours on new clause 1, which, I accept, deals with an important issue. I am not at all complacent and recognise that preventing disease at the point of entry is a key issue, but it is not the only issue. There are three issues in disease control: preventing disease from getting here in the first place, which we have debated; controlling the spread of disease once it appears in the country; and, of course, eradicating the disease and the measures needed to do that. All those criteria are important.
I have differences, not necessarily with Members who have spoken this afternoon, but with people who try to present the issue of import control as the only method of controlling disease in this country. Some of them would be happy to have import control barriers and stop meat coming in from other countries. It is a myth that everything that comes from abroad is substandard; that is not the case, and no one in the House would suggest that. However, some Members have suggested that our import controls are substandard in comparison with other countries. There is no evidence of that; our import controls, procedures and methods are as good as, if not better than, those of any other European country.
Unlike a lot of Members, Mr. Breed has been to see one of our border inspection posts, through which all third-country imports have to go. They are well run, efficient and well resourced; some are very modern indeed. That does not mean that we should not look at whether we should make them better and whether there is a case for strengthening border controls and inspections. The Department has been doing that; we have spent more money on publicity at points of entry so that people are aware of controls. We have had a cross-Department review as the issue is a multi-agency one, involving Customs and Excise, port health authorities and local authorities. The Food Standards Agency provides an overview, but it does not exercise regulatory control over the inspections. Our minds are certainly not closed to improvements and, if necessary, strengthened law and regulations. I have doubts about adding the new clauses to the Bill because the powers that we have at present can be changed by order. Parliamentary time is a precious resource; if regulations on import controls need to be changed, that can be done by order, so primary legislation is not necessarily required.
I am dismayed—[Interruption.] Well, I shall probably be even more dismayed later. The Minister is introducing draconian and sweeping powers to deal with the spread of disease and its eradication, yet the Government have not done anything of any consequence—and he knows that they have not—about the importation of disease into the United Kingdom. We can gather from what he has said that nothing done so far has been in the least bit effective. In an intervention, he gave a different view from the one that he is giving now. Will he revert to type and accept the new clause? He could have done something about the problem in the Bill and taken action, but that has not happened.
The hon. Lady is again confusing the facts. The Bill deals with animal health, but import regulations deal with a different subject although, of course, if necessary, they can be changed. However, I come back to the point that allegations are just allegations; the evidence is not there. That does not mean that illegal imports are not coming into the country—the fact that we have been seizing them demonstrates that they have been coming in. There have been seizures of illegal commercial imports; the bush meat seizures at Heathrow airport are an example of Customs and Excise applying a risk assessment at points of entry and taking efficient action. Some of the people involved in the organised illegal bush meat trade have been sent to jail. I may be wrong, but that has never happened before, and it shows how seriously the Government treat illegal imports and demonstrates that action has to be taken.
A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that primary legislation was, in his view, almost certainly not necessary. However, the excellent new clause 1, which was tabled by my hon. Friends, and new clause 4, which was tabled by the hon. Members for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), are agnostic on the question of whether or not primary legislation is required; they merely require the Minister to report back to the House.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to get to it, I shall answer his point later. I want to deal first with the myths and put things in perspective.
We are not out of sync with other countries, especially European ones, in the measures that we have taken to protect our consumers as well as animal and public health. I saw an interesting television programme about American border inspections. The Americans take that seriously, and I do not wish to imply otherwise, but the programme showed a guy searching luggage. He found some imported meat, including dead tropical rats, but because he could not find dead tropical rats in his guidebook he said that they must be all right, and allowed them into the country. That does not strike me as wonderful enforcement at the point of entry.
Let us put things in perspective. We need to look at enforcement. At the conference yesterday, I saw the presentation by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, which hon. Members have mentioned. The person giving the presentation was also in the European Union foot and mouth disease group. The presentation showed the scale of the spread of foot and mouth and indicated that 2000-01 has been the worst year ever for international outbreaks, not just those in the UK. A survey of risk assessment by the group demonstrated that the UK was last in risk assessment, which proves that one should not be complacent about many of the issues.
We shall have to look at those issues, but they are not the only ones. Mrs. Browning rightly said that the Devon inquiry was the first one. As she said, we know that the disease came to Devon via sheep movements in the country but, incredibly, the report did not mention biosecurity measures to stop the spread of disease.
Nobody participating in our debate or in the Bill's Committee stage has suggested that importation is the only thing that matters, although it is important, as the Minister will acknowledge. It would help to put things in perspective if he told us the total resource or financial commitment that the Government are making available towards preventing the importation of illegal food, and the number of people employed in that role.
That is a multi-agency responsibility that goes beyond government, so I do not have the figures immediately to hand, but I am happy to try to get them for the hon. Gentleman, as I believe in being open and transparent. As has been said, having a report is not a bad thing so that people can see what is being done. From the Government's point of view, it is a good idea to demonstrate what is being done by giving the number of prosecutions and seizures. I am not against that principle. In fact, my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who tabled new clause 4, made a good case; a case was also made for clause 1. My hon. Friends tabled a similar amendment in Committee, so they have been thinking ahead.
To a certain extent, we already conduct a review. Under the Animal Health Act 1981, a report on expenditure incurred, prosecutions under the Act, and the incidence of disease in imported animals is produced every year. Of course, that report deals with imported animals so it is not quite the same as the report proposed in the new clauses. I recognise that, and I do not disagree with the very persuasive arguments advanced by my hon. Friends.
The question is whether it is legally possible to include such a clause in a Bill that does not concentrate on imports. That does not mean that we do not take the new clause seriously; we do. The issue is the nature of the Bill. I will consult the Department's lawyers and other Departments, as it is a cross-Government matter. The principle of an annual report is perfectly reasonable and fair. If a measure along the lines of the new clause can be arranged, whether it is introduced in the Bill or elsewhere, I am willing to press the case.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response, which warmed up a little towards the end, but having considered the matter and listened to the debate, in which virtually every speaker from both sides of the House supported the principle of an annual report, which the Minister himself accepted, I fear that I cannot accept his undertaking to introduce the measure in another form, for the simple reason that we know that there is tremendous pressure on legislative time.
Unless I can have a cast-iron guarantee that the measure will be introduced in the other place, I must press the motion to a Division. If the Minister can give me a cast-iron guarantee now that the measure will be introduced in the other House during the passage of the Bill, I shall accept what he says.
The hon. Lady knows that, because of the wording of both new clauses, I cannot give a cast-iron guarantee. I have given the House an undertaking that I am willing to consider ways in which we can advance the principle. That may well involve changes in the Bill, but I shall have to take advice on that, and I shall certainly do so.