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1.45 pm

Mr. Morley: 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.

Mrs. Winterton: 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:

he can tell us later what those investigations have found so far—

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.

Mrs. Browning: 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.

Mrs. Winterton: 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.

Mr. Bacon: I, too, have been to the United States and Australia. Indeed, I have worked in both countries and,

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like my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (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 the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks)? On Second Reading, he said:

Of course, the hon. Gentleman probably does not go through the VIP lounge and must do what Opposition Members have to do.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): 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; 11 September is testament to the fact that security in their airports is not as good as ours.

Mrs. Winterton: I was in America on 11 September because one of our children lives in Hoboken. We were on top of the twin towers on the previous Saturday evening. Internal flights in America have poorer security, but that does not apply to international flights. When people enter the USA, they put the fear of God into you, for good reason. When people enter the United Kingdom, the opposite happens. I shall consider that contrast in more detail later when I deal with some of the measures that the Government have introduced, which have proved useless.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): 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.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and he is right. There appears to be no co-ordination in the effort against illegal imports.

Mr. Morley: That is an exaggeration.

Mrs. Winterton: I shall ignore that point and get on with my speech.

The Government received another warning about the danger of illegal imports. On 11 March, two weeks after the first outbreak of foot and mouth, Clive Lawrence, director of Ciel Logistics wrote to the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Ciel Logistics is approved to collect and recover consignments from airline warehouses and take them through the port health border inspection post. In his letter, Mr. Lawrence highlights the fact that the Ministry and Customs and Excise had long suspected that products were being illegally imported as

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passenger baggage, but did not have the resources to check. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) made that point. The letter states:

Mr. Lawrence continues:

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

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 26 January 1999, laid before Parliament on 3 February and came into force in the United Kingdom on 1 March that year. Any product of animal origin arriving at a United Kingdom port or any other European port needed to be inspected for port health clearance before being allowed free circulation in the Community, yet Her Majesty's Customs and Excise continues to claim that it does not have the resources to continue to target the flights that more commonly carry illegal imports. That must be looked at, because the dangers are inherently greater from some parts of the world than from others.

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.

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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.

On 4 December 2001, the Minister responded to a written parliamentary question about the additional biosecurity measures that have been implemented to check imports since February. He stated:

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:

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