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6 Nov 2002 : Column 392—continued

10.15 pm

In evidence presented to the European Parliament inquiry on foot and mouth, Clive Lawrence, the chief executive of the Heathrow-based freight company Ciel Logistics, said that he notified the Government in a letter to the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of the dangers posed by illegal meat imports to animal and human health, including the risk of foot and mouth. The letter was dated 10 May 2000, more than six

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months before the foot and mouth outbreak. We cannot afford such complacency from this Government or any other again. Clearly, there are issues of resources and lessons that can be drawn right across the world. At least the report will allow us, we hope, to assess the effectiveness of the measures that the Government have put in place already, and to develop a new policy dynamic whereby we can address the issues.

As has been said, meat smuggling is an extremely lucrative trade, with almost zero risk, compared with other forms of smuggling, and with a very high return. Some of the measures suggested, such as on-the-spot fines, will not get to grips with highly organised criminal gangs. Of course, couriers often have no money. We need the report, which it will allow us to probe the effectiveness of the Government's plans. The UK remains heavily exposed to imports from regions where animal diseases, including foot and mouth, are endemic. I hope that the Government's acceptance of the amendment is a signal that, for the first time, they intend to take the matter of illegal meat imports seriously, so that we can have some confidence about food security and the future of farming in this country.

Mr. Bacon: I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the amendment, but I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, the preparation of an annual report is not the whole story, and that just as we were right last year about the need for a report, we are also correct about the need for tougher action.

I spent several hours yesterday with Customs and Excise at Dover. I wish that the Minister would go there and see for himself, spend a little time at the nation's airports, and understand that we are not making these arguments trivially or lightly. We all welcome the steps that have been taken and the publicity campaign, but more needs to be done.

I shall make one other point, concerning the nature of open government. The Government's decision to accept the amendment and allow a report to Parliament once a year is indicative of a wider spread of information, which we must welcome. The Drummond report was not published, but was available to the Ministry in January 1999, and set out in brutal detail the Government's unpreparedness. A presentation to the state veterinary service national management meeting on 5 December 2000, dealing with the control of pigs, stated:

If those warnings had been available not just to departmental civil servants, but publicly, it is difficult to believe that the Government would not have been better prepared when foot and mouth hit in February last year. More information is essential.

Mr. Morley: I welcome the fact that most hon. Members who have spoken recognise that the Government have accepted the amendment, which follows on from a commitment that I gave in Committee, after representations from my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Forest of

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Dean (Diana Organ), that the matter was certainly worth further consideration , and that we would return to it. That commitment has been honoured.

I understand the points made by the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), and for St. Ives (Andrew George), my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, and the hon. Members for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). I can tell the hon. Member for South Norfolk that I spend a great deal of time hanging around airports, sometimes longer than I would like, and of course I look at what we are doing in this country and what is being done in other countries.

Hon. Members should understand that there are issues of risk assessment involved. We could spend a large amount of resources and study what other countries are doing, but sometimes it is more a matter of image and perception—I do not underestimate the importance of the message that we give people—than of being effective. Resources can sometimes be allocated in ways that do not achieve maximum effectiveness, which is why we have commissioned an independent study by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency to identify the biggest risks. It may well be that the biggest risks are in large-scale illegal meat smuggling. We have seized shipments and imprisoned people involved in meat smuggling. I think that that is the first time that people have been imprisoned for such an offence. We take firm action in enforcing the law.

Furthermore, a lot of the work that we are doing and which the Secretary of State mentioned is not properly seen by people in our country. We assess where risk is located. For example, when people in high-risk countries apply for visas to visit our country, they receive a leaflet explaining the risks and the UK measures and regulations by which they must abide. That has been backed up by videos provided by air companies with our co-operation, as well as information leaflets and posters and a range of work, and not least the increased powers for enforcement and inspection and the streamlining of the inspection through Customs and Excise so as to involve one point of contact. I appreciate the broad welcome that those announcements have received in the House.

We take these issues seriously and I welcome the annual assessment, as it is important that we consider the progress that is made. Hon. Members should understand, however, that we also have to put risks in perspective. Border entry posts are important, but they are but one of a range of issues relating to minimising disease risks. However, we take all the issues seriously and we will take action where it is needed.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 47.

Mr. Morley: I beg to move Government amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, leave out lines 12 to 29.

We are not disagreeing with the argument that there is a need for effective contingency planning. We have no argument with that. Indeed, the 2001 epidemic demonstrated very early on that the contingency plans that we had in place were clearly inadequate for dealing with an epidemic of that scale and type. We freely acknowledge that. Our experience in that epidemic has

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resulted in the rewriting of contingency plans by every country, as it is recognised that a complete rethink is required in organisational terms and in the way in which the matter is addressed.

The main purpose of the provision as it was originally drafted was to provide an assurance that the Government are serious about being prepared for any possible future outbreak of FMD. We recognise that various inquiry reports have highlighted that good contingency planning and better preparedness are crucial at the outset of any future disease outbreak. That is why we have taken immediate action to update our interim contingency arrangements for FMD and why we have updated them again in the light of the Government's response to the two independent reports. We want to develop the arrangements further in consultation with the industry, stakeholders and interested parties to address the wide range of issues thrown up in 2001.

As policies develop, the plans will be reviewed and amended accordingly. We do not want the documents merely to assume that once we have put in place a contingency plan, it will be permanent and will cover all the points raised. Even if people have signed up to such a plan, we do not accept that that is enough, and we recognise that any contingency plan will have to be periodically reviewed to ensure that it is up to date. We must accept and develop proposals concerning, for example, the administration of vaccination, which we discussed earlier. That would ensure that issues such as vaccination could be integrated into an overall plan that relates to all aspects of disease control policy. That provision has also been built into the contingency plan, again reflecting the recommendations made in the independent reports.

Contingency planning needs to cover the control of diseases using a range of measures, including culling and/or emergency vaccination as appropriate, and to take account of the context of relevant EU legislation. I anticipate that, when we have had extensive consultation, the completed contingency plan will be laid before Parliament for the first time in the spring.

The incidence of diseases worldwide and their possible occurrence in the UK will also contribute to establishing the priority to be given to extending the provisions of the contingency plan from foot and mouth disease to cover other exotic diseases. A number of hon. Members have spoken of the risk posed by a range of diseases. We take that risk extremely seriously. We are therefore putting in place a risk-based approach, and our aim is to target our resources based on what we know about the risk posed by different exotic diseases. The most effective way to make the best use of the available resources is to identify exactly where the risks are, and to determine where to apply the resources so as to deal with those risks.

The requirements that have been added to the original Bill by proposed new sections 14A(2) and 14A(3) do not relate to the purpose of the clause, which is to define a requirement for a contingency plan to deal with occurrences of disease. On that, we have no disagreement. The proposed new sections would not allow us to target our resources appropriately. Proposed new section 14A(2) would require us to expend a great

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deal of resources in relation to all the diseases in schedule 2A, which is included in the Bill to deal, more than anything else, with issues of deliberate infection, rather than to distinguish between the diseases in terms of an assessment of the risk occurrences in the UK.

We need to carry out significant worldwide surveillance for exotic disease, and this already takes place. The relevant information is available from international sources such as the OIE. The risk to the UK comes not from countries that report honestly to the OIE, but from those that do not report their disease situation or that have no effective mechanism for diagnosing or reporting disease, and in which, by definition, a three-yearly review would be completely valueless because there is no available information. That is not to say, however, that the concerns expressed in the other place are not being addressed. We take them very seriously. However, the additional provisions—proposed new sections 14A(2) and 14A(3)—are more relevant to other activities of government, such as the prevention of disease.

The Government announced earlier this afternoon their response to the FMD inquiry reports, and it is in that response that we have set out how we will take forward work on the recommendations that have been made. That is where the broader issues of strategy have properly been addressed. I do not, therefore, consider the proposed new sections 14A(2) and 14A(3) appropriate in the context of the contingency plan provisions. That is why I am seeking to remove them from the Bill. I am doing so not because we have any objection to a public commitment to proper contingency planning—or to ensuring that those contingency plans are properly consulted on and that people have every opportunity to participate in that consultation—but because the provisions are unnecessary. They do not sit well in the Bill. There is no major disagreement on this, but, if we are to have proper legislation, it should be just that. In that regard, the proposals are unnecessary and I invite the House to reject them.

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