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6 Nov 2002 : Column 389—continued

Mr. Morley: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The Government agree that we must take action to minimise the risk of importing animal diseases that have the potential to do serious damage. That is why we are taking action to tackle the problem of illegal imports of meat and meat products, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spelt out in some detail the kind of measures that we are taking. The illegal imports action plan covers a wide range of measures. It is expected that future action to combat illegal imports will be informed by the outcome of the assessment of disease risk and a review of how import controls can be better arranged.

In the course of the debate, we have recognised that in relation to reducing disease risk we need to take action on a number of fronts, which we have been discussing in detail, and we recognise that points of entry is one of them. That is why we take the matter seriously and are introducing these measures. In that respect, we agree with the Lords amendment.

Mr. Hayes: I shall speak briefly on this matter, as we wish to move on to others.

The Government have generously and wisely conceded to the demands of the House of Lords in this respect. That is important, as illegal meat imports are a massive problem in this country, which is widely acknowledged in the House and was mentioned earlier when we debated the response to the Anderson inquiry.

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Indeed, according to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee report published in March 2002, the trade in unfit and illegal meat is the third most lucrative illegal enterprise in this country, netting more than #1 billion worth of trade per year. The primary reason for that is lack of implementation and the wrangling that takes place between a variety of agencies. We were pleased to hear earlier that that will be dealt with by drawing all of these matters under the auspices of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise.

In conclusion, import controls must be an integral part of any disease control strategy. At the moment, it appears to many farmers that the 20-day rule adversely affects their ability to do their business properly and fruitfully. While they are being strangled, however, airports and other points of entry do not have effective checks in place. It is therefore vitally important that we turn our attention to meat imports in a meaningful, properly resourced way.

Mr. Wiggin: We are debating animal health, but I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that we could expose ourselves to diseases such as Ebola if the promises on Customs and Excise are not fulfilled.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend, with his usual perspicacity, makes the point effectively. It is important to realise that it is not simply a case of illegality; there is also the great danger of a public health risk. The Minister and the Secretary of State have acknowledged that. The relevant authorities are going to be brought together to address the problem. We hope that that will be properly resourced and proper information will be provided. We also hope that the conversion engenders public confidence and the confidence of the industry because such matters need to be taken more seriously, as the Lords made clear.

Andrew George: I, too, congratulate the Government on accepting the amendment tabled by my noble Friend Lord Livsey. They have been receptive to strong arguments. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned: had the Government pushed the Bill through at the speed they intended, such an important amendment might not have been made. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on his ten-minute Bill of a few months ago which would have established the same measure. I congratulate the Government on listening to the arguments and considering the seriousness of the problem. For the reasons set out by hon. Members and in the expansive debate in another place, it is essential that more stringent controlled surveillance and monitoring is put in place.

I have just one point to add. Although I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State that the measures will come under the overall control of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, the fact is that the most recent surveys by independent bodies, such as the National Farmers Union survey this summer, show that there is tremendous leakage through airports and ports. It is an extremely serious matter. I hope that the Minister's Department will not wash its hands of the problem and leave it to the Treasury and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise to sort out. The Department needs to be directly engaged to ensure that proper controls are

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followed through and that every effort is made to stop the illegal trade, which represents a significant bio-security risk.

Mr. Drew: Lest there be no misunderstanding, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) and I tabled the original amendment on imports. I am glad that my hon. Friend has seen the wisdom of agreeing to the measure, albeit a year later. The subject is important. Since the amendment appeared in its original incarnation, the Select Committee report has been published highlighting the need for action.

I have a simple point to make. On bearing down on illegal meat imports and other imports that could damage our food chain, we must remember that it is not the person who brings in such products on a casual basis that causes most concern. Those people who are into the serious trade should worry us most. They might not even use the main points of entry. We need to ensure that policies are in place to deal with them.

I am pleased that the provision has been accepted. I know that discussions took place behind the scenes. I am glad that my hon. Friend has seen fit to do the decent thing and make it clear that the Government are going to deal with such issues. We need to tackle the hard edge of the problem. Those people on the soft edge act more in error than anything else. We can do more at the ports, but we need to get hold of the people who are importing such products as part of a serious and growing trade because they threaten our food trade now and in the future.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ) will recall that my colleagues and I voted for the hon. Gentleman's amendment in Committee, by which time he had withdrawn it, or voted against it. Indeed, the Minister dismissed all attempts in Committee at amendments to improve and strengthen import controls. In fact, I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman accepted any amendments to the Bill in this place.

I remind Ministers that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) pointed out to them in recent weeks some of the plans and preparations that have been put in place by some of our European partners since the outbreak of foot and mouth in the United Kingdom last year. I am a little disappointed, therefore, despite the welcome announcement by the Secretary of State today of the ban on personal meat imports and the hon. Gentleman's promise to review annually the way in which controls are being put into place. This is not rocket science—I suspect that much of it has to do with the political will to get the resources from the Treasury to put in place effective import controls.

If the Minister travels to Dublin, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and I did during the summer recess, he will find that Dublin airport has put in place amnesty bins since the outbreak, and the Irish had only one case of foot and mouth at the same time as us. I tabled a written question to the Minister on amnesty bins only last week. Today, I received the reply that he and his hon. Friends are Xconsulting". An amnesty bin

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is not rocket science and it does not need masses of consultation. If the Irish Government have managed to put them in place, why have we not managed to do it?

Mr. Morley: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: I will finish my questions, as the Minister may wish to deal with them together.

When one gets off the plane in Dublin, one is immediately struck by the bold notices—not some little thing around the carousel—that invite people who have recently been on a farm to go to a centre where they can decontaminate their shoes and so forth. The Irish Government have set up their own office in Dublin airport since foot and mouth last year, so that they have veterinary officials on site to deal with any problems.

The tardiness of our Government, when other countries have clearly had the will to put measures in place, does not commend the measures that the Minister has announced, on which he says that he will report annually. He should get those measures in place. That is the priority. We will look forward to the annual reports, but this Government have a track record of producing reports on just about everything, full of spin, and it is the substance that we want—it is the beef. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman now, if he still wishes to intervene.

Mr. Morley indicated dissent.

Mrs. Browning: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is going to pass on that offer.

The Government have an important part to play. They have chided the farming community and legislated to ensure that it plays its part. We now want to see some substance, not just reports.

Adam Price : I, too, congratulate the Government on accepting the amendment. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, the issue is vitally important. At the very least, the report will maintain a focus on the issue.

The Government have shown some complacency and laxity on the subject of illegal meat imports, which contrasts with their initiatives on controls on domestic farmers. We welcome the action plan, but a few posters and two trained sniffer dogs at Heathrow airport will not be enough to get to grips with this vitally important problem. Let us contrast that with the actions of the Irish Government and with other Governments throughout the world, for example, Canada, Australia and the United States, where the issue has been on the agenda for many decades.

We know to our cost the consequences of complacency on this issue.

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