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Foot and Mouth Disease

12. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What her latest calculation is of the total sum overpaid to farmers, valuers, slaughtermen and farm cleansers during the foot and mouth disease outbreak. [46521]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): We have identified £9.4 million of overpayment, of which £8.2 million has been recovered so far. In addition, the NAO and EU are undertaking audits of our expenditure and we await their findings.

Paul Flynn: Has my hon. Friend studied the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the case of Mr. Joseph Bowden, who attempted to defraud his Department of nearly £500,000? The Comptroller and Auditor General is concerned that that case was discovered virtually by accident. Mechanisms to discover such cases in the future will not be in place until 2004. Given that subsidies and compensation for farmers cost the country £5.25 billion last year—equivalent to £700 for every family in the land—should not the best mechanisms be put in place to detect all fraud, especially as most of those who are paying for such subsidies work in industries that receive not a single penny in compensation or subsidy when they themselves are in trouble?

Mr. Morley: It is right that, wherever public funds are used, controls are necessary to ensure that fraudulent claims are not made. The points that my hon. Friend raises relate to two issues, the first of which is the recent foot and mouth outbreak. I can assure him that we are still disputing several claims. Forensic accountants are examining the number of claims being made to the Department in respect of contractors and compensation for animals. We will not pay those claims unless they are backed up by proper invoices, and are based on a justified valuation. On the management of subsidies in general, we are investing in new technology and new procedures to ensure that the public interest is protected, and that any claims have a legal basis within the common agricultural policy.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Is not the real concern to ensure that no similar outbreak of foot and mouth occurs in future? What steps is the Under-Secretary taking to ensure that contaminated meat is not imported into the United Kingdom, given that the number of Customs officers has still not been increased? When will he finally agree to the pleas from farmers and others—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's question is far outwith the range of the original question.

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Food Imports

13. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): What plans she has to overhaul the regulations governing food imports. [46523]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): A wide range of legislation governs all aspects of food imports. In particular, regulations dealing with veterinary checks on imports of animal products from third countries are being amended to bring them up to date and fully into line with European rules. They will soon give enforcement officers the power to search personal baggage for illegal imports of meat and other animal products.

I have also raised with the European Commission the need to tighten and clarify rules on personal imports. In addition, we have produced an action plan that details the further measures that we are putting in place to combat illegal imports entering the country.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) was doing his best to pinch my lines. Under the rules of the House, I am required to draw attention to my farming interests.

I thank the Minister for that most helpful reply. As he knows, in the past five years this country and the agriculture industry in general have suffered the devastating epidemics of swine vesicular disease and foot and mouth disease, both of which are thought to be caused by illegal food imports. The matter is therefore very urgent, and although he said that he is discussing it with the European Union, can he say when the outcomes of those discussions are likely to be implemented, and will he publish all the details of those discussions? In the light of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, will he liaise with Her Majesty's Customs and Excise to ensure that more inspectors are provided, and that they police illegal food imports into this country more rigorously?

Mr. Morley: All these issues are in the public domain, and in fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State participated in a meeting with interested parties concerning the steps that we need to take now and in future. I should emphasise that immediate steps, such as talking to airlines, are being taken. In some African countries, airlines that fly to the UK question passengers about what they are carrying and remind them about the rules that are in place. Posters are being put up, and increased powers are being given to our enforcement agencies at points of entry.

All these issues are important and we take them seriously, but I should point out that border control forms only one part of disease control. We must also give equal consideration to aspects such as animal movements and biosecurity.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): On the question of border control, I can tell the Minister that 15 years ago my constituency had 25 Customs and Excise officers on Shetland and 18 on Orkney. This year, we have three on Shetland to cover both island groups. That situation is replicated throughout the country and that is

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what leaves us vulnerable to illegal meat imports. In the context of the loss to the economy from the foot and mouth outbreak last year, does he not agree that cuts in the number of Customs officers are false economies?

Mr. Morley: Of course that needs to be taken into account and the costs of foot and mouth were catastrophic. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that his question needs to be put to the Treasury Ministers, who are responsible for Customs officers. It is not a matter for my Department. However, we have commissioned a risk assessment to help us to allocate additional resources, if a case is made for them. We need to know where the risks are in terms of points of entry, and which areas we need to concentrate on and perhaps provide with more resources. Those points are being taken into account.

Genetically Modified Crops

14. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): What measures are in place to ensure that crops involved in GM field/farm trials are prevented from entering the animal feed chain; and how these measures are enforced. [46524]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): Material from the farm-scale trials is either incorporated into soil or goes to landfill. For the oilseed rape and beet crops, that is a statutory rule enforced by our GM inspectorate. The maize in the farm-scale trials is not subject to the same requirement, but the industry has agreed that it will not be used for food or feed.

Alan Simpson: When I tabled the question, it was an attempt to discover whether we had adequate mechanisms in place to ensure non-contamination of the food chain and effective penalties to deal with transgressions. I was slightly concerned by the latter part of the Minister's answer, because I have been supplied with details of specific ways in which parts of the GM crop trials have been allowed into the animal feed chain. I know that the Minister takes contamination issues as seriously as I do, and in a previous answer he made the point that ultimately it is for consumers to decide whether they wish to consume GM products. If I can provide him with details of GM crops being fed into the animal feed chain, will he assure me that those responsible will be prosecuted, rather than fobbed off with assurances from an industry that does not enforce the standards to which the Government claim we are committed?

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Mr. Meacher: Yes, I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. If he will give me details, I will follow them up and if an offence has been committed we will certainly prosecute. I am aware of two examples. In one it was alleged that cows were grazed on GM maize stubble at a farm-scale evaluation site in Dorset. We checked that report and the farmer confirmed that it did not happen. The other example was when some maize from the trials was used in a cattle feeding study at Reading university. During the study and for the period thereafter no milk from the animals concerned was allowed to enter the food chain and the animals were not used to produce meat for human consumption. My hon. Friend may have been referring to one of those examples, but if he has other evidence I will certainly follow it up.

Hunting With Dogs

15. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): If she intends to publish a consultation paper setting out her proposals to amend the law on hunting with dogs. [46525]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I am pleased to confirm that I have written to all Members of this House and of another place, and to a wide range of interest groups, seeking comments and evidence on practical issues related to hunting, as set out in my statement to the House on 21 March. A copy of the letter is in the Library of the House.

Mr. Prentice: I have read the excellent letter penned by my right hon. Friend, but it does not constitute a consultation document. Can he cite any previous example of the Government consulting on forthcoming legislation without publishing a consultation document first?

Alun Michael: As legislation is prepared, people have a variety of occasions to contribute to the process. In my statement on 21 March, I made very clear the principles on which legislation will be prepared, as a result of the six months of discussion and drafting. That will involve considering both aspects of cruelty and practical issues for the countryside, such as pest control, wildlife management and conservation. The process will depend on the contributions that are made and the way in which organisations wish to engage in discussion on those issues. I look forward to hearing from people who have a constructive contribution to make to the debate in the next few weeks.

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