Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)|
TUESDAY 2 JULY 2002
120. In your original discussions with the Government
in coming up with an action plan, did you flag this issue up with
them or was this something you thought of subsequently?
(Mr Averns) It was something that we put in our response
to the draft regulations, so we made the point there and then
that we felt this was something that was necessary.
121. Did the Government respond to your suggestion?
(Mr Young) They responded by giving us the search
122. The second point is, again from what we
saw and heard, you flagged up very clearly that you would like
a total ban on the import of products of animal origin. That is
so that there is no doubt in anybody's mind about the personal
allowance. You would like that to go. Is that correct?
(Mr Young) That is correct, Chairman. We believe that
it is very confusing to the public. It is difficult for us to
know the full list of the exemptions for personal allowances of
different products that you can bring in and we think it would
send a message to the public that actually you are not allowed
to bring in products of animal origin.
123. It is a big job turning out a container.
Does that mean to say you do not check containers as much as you
have been checking aeroplanes?
(Mr Bloomfield) No, it does not. It means that you
have to be very focused on what you are doing and target the ones
that you think are going to contain illegal importsthe
ones that you have experience of and, possibly, knowledge of some
of the traders involved. You target those. It is a labour-intensive
exercise, but it is the only way to find them.
124. If you get it wrong you pay. In other words,
there is no charge you can levy.
(Mr Bloomfield) That is right. We do make sure that
when we do find them we make them go through the process of declaring
them as an import and then, because they do not comply, reject
them. So we can make that charge. The issue of resource for the
actual detective workfinding themis not funded other
than by local taxpayers, really.
125. Quite obviously, you would levy a charge
if you found smuggled meat, but who are you levying it on?
(Mr Bloomfield) You would levy it on whoever was importing
the rest of the goods in the container.
126. Not the supplier back in wherever?
(Mr Bloomfield) No. You have no way of getting it
127. I get the impression from the Port of London
Health Authority and the Corporation of London evidence that resources
are not adequate for doing the job. Is that a reasonable impression?
(Mr Averns) It is. There are two concerns. Firstly,
London City Airport is not a border inspection post so no products
of animal origin should come through there at all, so we are not
at liberty to charge in any way, shape or form. Secondly, at the
seaports, as Doug says, we have to target our resources there
as effectively as possible. Certainly, not every container we
examine or turn out would have products of animal origin in, and
as you rightly say it is a labour-intensive exercise to do so;
with a 40-foot container, or a 20-foot container, it can take
a day or two to do that, and it ties up a lot of officer time
and you would not necessarily detect products of animal origin,
although you may find other foodstuffs which do not comply with
UK and EC law.
128. What further resources do you need and
how should they be allocated? Do you want them allocated as a
general charge on imports, or paid specifically out of public
spending? What scale of resources do you need to do the job adequately?
(Mr Young) Perhaps if I could respond to that. What
we believe, based on our experience at Gatwick and, indeed, Heathrow
airports on passenger baggage checks, is that you need a team
of at least six people to undertake the checks properly. We would
suggest that you probably need one of those teams at each of the
major sea and airports to undertake freight and passenger checks.
Part of the Government's action plan is to undertake a veterinary
risk assessment, and that is currently being carried out. I think
the outcome of that risk assessment will determine which ports
will need to have those teams to best target those resources where
the highest risk is.
129. So it is more money, more staff and, presumably,
(Mr Young) It is more staff and the money to pay for
those. We do not believe that it will be at a few sea and airports
throughout the UK or that it should be local taxpayers that should
foot the bill for that.
130. I have had a written complaint as an MP
for a food town about wide variations in practice between port
health authorities; some are more, shall we say, assiduous, others
take a more relaxed viewthis is on, for instance, the labelling
of meat imports and things like that. Presumably the same differences
in vigour of enforcement exist in respect of products of animal
(Mr Bloomfield) I think those accusations are easier
to make than they are to defend.
131. They were very serious and it is a big
problem for the manufacturers of packaging when stuff turns up
(Mr Bloomfield) I think it is fair to say that where
local authorities and port health authorities are working in situations
where they are dealing with a lot of these problems all the while,
they have more of these problems arising because they are handling
more of that sort of cargo. They are dealing with difficult origins
and from some of the more difficult and less scrupulous importers.
132. Anybody who wants to import this stuff
can do their own risk assessment, and work out it is better to
come in through port A than port B, or airport C, or whatever.
(Mr Bloomfield) It is not just a question of the UK,
of course, because Rotterdam advertises itself as the UK's largest
port. International trade being what it is, you can very quickly
take your cargo to another port in another Member State, and if
it is not being checked to the same standard there it could then
go into free circulation and then would arrive in the UK without
anybody knowing about it.
133. Is it really the most efficient way to
manage this problem that individual local authorities make their
judgments about how to provision your services?
(Mr Averns) Through the Association of Port Health
Authorities we have committees where we discuss enforcement issues.
Through those committees we endeavour to get consistency in exactly
what we are doingto go back to the previous question. Certainly
we also liaise with government departments to ensure that what
we are doing is in line with policy for the Food Standards Agency
or DEFRA, and that we follow any guidance which they issue.
134. But your money is not ring-fenced, and
each individual authority can make its own judgment in its own
budgetary circumstancesand presumably do. Some of your
members presumably incur the displeasure of other members through
cuts they have made in services. Is that right?
(Mr Young) Yes, that is right. Obviously both sea
and airports do vary in size enormously, from very small sea or
airports to very, very large, international ones. Therefore, they
will be resourced differently according to the scale of the trade.
I have already mentioned the detection team of at least six staff
that we envisage being at the major ports, but we also envisage
that they could, to some extent, be peripatetic and might, say,
one or two days a month go and undertake checks at some of the
smaller ports to provide that support for lower-resourced authorities.
135. Who would pay for that? I did not quite
catch whether you said that should not fall on the council taxpayer
or whether it should..
(Mr Young) We believe it should not fall on the council
136. How do you make sure it does not, bearing
in mind that the Government does not, at the moment, ring-fence
money paid to authorities? If they hand the money over, it is
perfectly permissible for the authorities to just trouser it and
spend it on leisure or whatever else they may wish to put their
(Mr Young) Yes, you are quite right, and in fact local
authorities themselves are actually against the ring-fencing of
funds, for fairly obvious reasons. There is actually a model already
in place, and that is funding for port health medical units at
airports and, I believe, at the Channel Tunnel, where the Department
of Health holds the budget. Authorities undertaking checks on
passengers reclaim their expenses. We would envisage that this
funding, if it were to be provided, could be held by DEFRA and
it would, to an extent, give DEFRA control over what local authorities
are doing, in that we would envisage that ports running these
teams would have to submit annual plans of their activities for
approval by DEFRA before the funding is forthcoming. That way
it avoids the problem of ring-fencing of funds in local authorities
and it also avoids the problem, as you say, of local authorities
diverting those funds to other uses.
137. Would it not be a lot easier if this power
was taken away from local authorities altogether and a separate
agency set up to manage it, rather than this curious, muddled
model that you are suggesting?
(Mr Young) That would be one option, quite obviously,
but local authorities do already have the infrastructure in place
in terms of offices, computer systems and networks. The infrastructure
is already in place there. There is also the questionand
I know this inquiry is particularly about meat and veterinary
risksof public health risks with all products of animal
origin, and there are also the public health risks of products
not of animal origin, which we do inspect as well.
138. Just briefly on a similar subject, about
a year ago I tried to visit a number of ports and in the end was
only allowedif that is the right wordto visit Felixstowe,
which I have to say was very impressive in terms of the facilities
they have got, the people and everything else. That is obviously,
if not the best, one of the best. However, it seemed to me that
if that was the case, anybody who was determined to have a continuous
trade, rather than an odd importsomebody who was continuously
deciding to import illegal productswould not go through
to that place and would, therefore, choose, if you like, the weakest
link in the chain of ports. How much do you think that those that
are determined to try and illegally import are actually exploiting
the lack of resources at the smaller ports in order to get their
stuff through, rather than use headline ports such as Heathrow
(Mr Bloomfield) It is entirely possible that they
could do that. In fact, we have evidence that suggests that that
has gone on in the past. We, for many years now, have had a very
good information system and electronically advise one another
of what is going on, where problems are turning up specifically.
The Association has just started a process of providing enhanced
support for smaller ports, working on a regional basis, to ensure
that that problem that you have suggested is actually a lower
risk then it might currently be.
139. But you have no factual information as
to whether this is so?
(Mr Averns) Perhaps I could answer that. Firstly,
there are the types of trade which go into the smaller ports.
They are not necessarily geared up to take containers into a port,
for example. Container ports are those which are better-resourced
and better policed. Secondly, one other legal requirement which
would assist, we believe, would be prior notification of all foodstuffs.
Because a lot of products of animal origin are smuggled in with
other foods that is not to say that people would not necessarily
ignore that requirement but at least that would help us, particularly
at the airports, to make sure that controls are exercised at the
ports before the foodstuffs go inland.