Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-199)



  180. A good politician can spot the problems.
  (Lord Whitty) I think it was recognised it was important that we did start taking action on this front and what we have done is bring together the various parties who are involved in this, both private and public sector, to try and have a more co-ordinated approach to it. We started that with the direct enforcement agencies during the course of the disease but from earlier this year we put together them, the airlines, the port authorities, the shipping companies and so on to get everybody involved in facing up to the problem. Amongst the stakeholders I think it has been received quite well, and there has been a recognition that there is a shared responsibility for dealing with it. If I can put this delicately and following on from my opening remarks, dealing with the disease internally in terms of stopping items getting into the food chain and stopping the spread has led to pretty tight internal movements and a biosecurity regime relating principally to the farming sector, and they have felt that the parallel responsibilities of government in relation to the position at the border has not been as strong or effective as it might be, and they have been pretty effective in drawing that to our attention and the attention of the general public. From their perspective that is a valid comment but we do have to proceed in co-operation with these other bodies and, if we are to make any major shift in policy, including allocation of substantial resources, that needs to be on the basis of sound science and that is where the risk assessment fits in. On the rest of the action plan, there is a greater visibility: there is substantially greater co-ordination and greater intelligence sharing amongst the agencies. We need another notch-raising of awareness and we are intending before the big summer holiday rush, probably next week, to announce a further stage in the public awareness programme which involves both information at the airports, with travel agencies, with airlines and at the point of embarkation. So there will be another significant notching-up of that effort which I think hitherto has not achieved the level of awareness I would have liked

Mr Curry

  181. Minister, I do not want to put words in your mouth but I want to be clear I understand what you have just said. We had classical swine fever and we all said it was due to imported food—in fact, it was some mythical Chinese ham sandwich at some stage which was blamed for it. We then said foot and mouth disease had to be caused by imported product because we did not have the disease, therefore it could only have come in from outside. Now, you have just said I think that the first priority of the government was not, in fact, to address imports, even though you agreed that it was the government who made that diagnosis that it was caused by imports, but it was to deal with it once it had got here. Is that what you said: that we needed to deal with it when it got in the food chain?
  (Lord Whitty) No. What I said is that the first priority was to stop it getting into the food chain. However draconian the border control, our first priority is to ensure that, if anything does get through, it does not get into the food chain and the second priority is, if it does get into the food chain and we are in a disease situation, to stop the disease spreading, and that was certainly our major priority for most of last year in terms of containing the disease.

  182. You quoted the example of the pig swill and you said that the priority was to stop it getting into the food chain, assuming it had got across the frontier. The implication I had understood was that it was not your priority to stop it getting here. It was to cope with it once it is here, not to stop it getting here.
  (Lord Whitty) The Chairman did ask me what the balance of risk was.

  183. Yes. I am going to pursue that; do not worry. First of all, I know that the Department is strapped for cash because it always has been and still is but I do not quite understand why these two operations could not be carried out simultaneously. Immediately in the aftermath of foot and mouth disease, what steps were taken?
  (Lord Whitty) It is not an either/or situation. The burden of effort from the outbreak of the disease was clearly in containing the disease. The immediate regulatory change which that brought was to stop it getting into the food chain through the most obvious and direct route which is the pig swill route, but we did from before and the very early stages of the disease start taking steps to co-ordinate amongst the various enforcement authorities to reduce the risk of it getting in and from before my time raising the regulatory dimension of import controls and import checks with the European Union from a very early stage in the outbreak. From memory my colleague Joyce Quin was raising this issue in March of last year with the European Union and we have pursued that, so it is not an either/or position. I was saying that the burden of effort must have been, and there was no alternative, during last year to stop the spread of the disease, to contain it and eventually to eradicate it. The lessons from that relate to stopping things getting into the food chain and minimising the risk of it getting into the country.

  184. Let us agree that neither of us would argue that you should not have devoted your efforts to stamping out foot and mouth disease: it is not a proposition that you should not have been doing that. The point I was making is that it did seem possible that some other work might have been going on at the same time. But you said that the NFU had raised the profile of this and had argued that the government had not been proactive enough, and you said, "From their point of view I can see why they did it", but at some stage you are going to have to turn round to the NFU and say, "We have got this one fettled, sorted". What degree of checks, what intensity, do you think would enable you to turn round to the NFU and say, "Given that we do not wish to bring every airport and port to a halt and that trade has to carry on, we think we have just about got actuarily the level of checks to give maximum assurance for an acceptable degree of disruption"?
  (Lord Whitty) I do not know that there is a straight answer to that. As far as we can get close to it that would follow on the risk assessment. What I think is not very much in the consciousness of the public in general and farmers in general is the level of checks which goes on at the moment, particularly in relation to the commercial trade, because most meat comes into the country and most trade comes in through commercial activities, and although there is a lot of attention on the passenger, and rightly so, probably the most likely entry is through the commercial trade one way or another. In that respect there is already a check, a 1:5 (20 per cent) minimum check, on all meat products that come into this country and higher for certain species. It is higher for poultry at the moment. That is partly an EU arrangement and partly our own enforcement priority so there is a pretty high level of checking where the bulk of the meat comes in. Where I think the public and the farmers are conscious of a lack of the appearance of a high level of checking is in relation to the passenger traffic, and I think there it is as much a matter of deterrence as of the actual level of detection that is likely to be achieved by a high level of checking. Personally, although I need the risk assessment to prove this to me, I think there should be a higher level of checking. There is already a higher level of co-ordination achieved amongst the various agencies since the outbreak, and I think that if we were simply to move across without proper scientific base to a different form of checking then it might well have a minimum impact on the problem.

  185. Did you ever in your most private thoughts, when you were shaving in the morning or whatever, say to yourself, "There has been a hell of a song and dance about this, the NFU has gone on about it ad infinitum, yet we have been disease-free despite all the trade for decades; we have tried to make sure if anything does happen we have dealt with it at the point of entry into the food chain; in terms of good old government and treasury value for money and public expenditure, whatever the pressures upon us there may not be value for money in simply multiplying the checks at airports compared with spending the money on R&D"?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes. In my more logical private moments I think there is no point in simply throwing money and resources at it because you get reducing returns, but what I do think is that it is quite important to change the atmospherics and the feeling of both importers and individual passengers, if they come in, that there is a problem if they are carrying food and that is why I think a public awareness campaign is very important and the visibility of checks, which of course is constantly urged on us by the farming unions and others, is probably an issue and one that I would wish to tackle. But I wish to tackle it on the basis of as sound a science as we can establish in this area.


  186. We will come to that in a moment but let us stick with the perception just for now, because some of the more sexy parts of the action plan lie around sniffer dogs and X-rays and disposal bins, honesty bins. Where have we got to on those three measures?
  (Lord Whitty) To take sniffer dogs first, clearly there are some countries which I think relatively recently have relied quite heavily on sniffer dogs in this area, and we have in other areas—drugs and explosives—which have hitherto had a higher priority at the point of enforcement. We are now embarked on an experiment of using sniffer dogs: we have just started an exercise of training those dogs which will last for eight weeks and, before the end of the summer, we will have a presence of sniffer dogs. That will be a pilot and we will have to see how it works and how effective it is as detection, and how effective it is in terms of deterrence. On X-rays, there is of course some degree of X-ray activity already but the normal X-ray machinery, even with an expert person looking at the screen, is not very effective at picking out meat as distinct from other things. There are suggestions that combining earlier forms of technology can change that but we do not have a validated machine which could do that. In terms of X-raying whole containers, this would be an enormous job and one which could only be done on a fairly limited random basis, even if we were to make the capital investment without completely disrupting the four million container consignments that come into the country. I think, therefore, although there is a role for more X-ray, it is a limited one, one we are looking at and which we may well wish to take a bit further. I think the idea that X-rays are going to be a panacea for this is probably not as valid as some people claim.

  187. And honesty bins and discarding your stuff and boarding cards on aeroplanes may not achieve anything but they would respond to the kind of cry, "Something must be done", and the balancing act is what the something is because it is never going to be one hundred per cent. What is the necessary deterrent, as it were?
  (Lord Whitty) The issue of honesty bins is one where the jury is still out and we are still discussing it with other authorities. Hitherto both the airport authorities and Customs & Excise have not been particularly keen on honesty bins and I think the reality is they would be symbolic but may be part of the public awareness campaign. They are unlikely to have huge effects on the real amount that is coming in but I would not dismiss their use as part of an overall package. In relation to landing cards, what we have to recognise as distinct from the situation in America or New Zealand is that the vast bulk of the incoming traffic is European-based or has come from a European airport and is therefore subject to the single market and this does not apply. With landing cards, once you start discussing what should be on the landing cards which are there solely at the moment for immigration purposes, there may well be other questions which government departments and others would wish to put on the landing cards. Again, we are still in discussion on that. More directly, and something which I think we can probably pursue more effectively, is to persuade the airlines to do as they do in other countries to make announcements themselves. Part of the next stage of our public awareness campaign will be to provide in-flight messages. We will have to get legal authority to enforce it on airlines but we are hoping they will co-operate on this, and to produce a video which could be used on long-haul flights, and in travel agents and in the rather long hours that many passengers spend waiting in UK airports on the way out. So getting the consciousness of the incoming passenger raised is important, and that we can do without necessarily changing the rules on landing cards or immigration requirements.

  188. All these things are fraught with difficulties, and posters have not been easy either because airports are good advertising venues and you are competing against others?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes. I think there is more we can do on posters as well. Part of the next campaign will involve posters on the outgoers because we are particularly aiming at holidaymakers. On incoming flights, of course, we have not yet but we are about to put the posters on to the carousels at the main airports. There is a commercial implication of that for the airport, for us and for Customs & Excise. This shows I do not travel very much: I am told by my colleague they have been on the carousels for a few days now.

Mr Curry

  189. But what is the commercial implication, because there is nothing else on the carousel at the moment. If one is sitting at the airport, there is a big carousel which is 60 yards long, and there is absolutely nothing in the middle of it. Instead there is a poster, in extraordinarily complicated language, English only, revolving around the end of the carousel, so it is competing with two other messages because it is a triangular poster. What is to stop a bloody great message sitting along the length of the carousel like it is in Los Angeles to tell people what they cannot do? What is so offensive about that?
  (Lord Whitty) It is not offensive—

  190. BA is not advertising anything else at all at the moment. There is nothing there.
  (Lord Whitty) I do not think that is true, with respect. I think there are mainly BAA or Customs & Excise announcements on that carousel.

  191. No, there is nothing there. I looked at it. We watched it going round. It was fascinating—just like old times!
  (Lord Whitty) In any case, it is our determination to get the message on the carousel but there is a cost to the airport authorities in doing that.

  192. Why? What is the cost? What is the cost of having stiff cardboard—
  (Lord Whitty) You would have to do that through the Customs & Excise arrangements that they have with BAA so I cannot give you a fee. If I can give you more information I will do it in writing.


  193. Yes, please. Let us just locate to Heathrow because we have been to Heathrow and we have seen the triangular sign that goes round and it is quite right that on one of them there is a poster, but we would be interested to know why you cannot do more on the David Curry model, and what the cost implications would be.
  (Lord Whitty) Yes.
  (Ms Wordley) I think it is fair to say that is not one of the options that we have explored previously so we can certainly look into whether there is any scope for that.

  Mr Curry: That just shows how creative select committees can be!

Mr Martlew

  194. You said the question of deterrent was important. We have just had a witness before us who said that they checked 30 airlines at Gatwick and they found well over a ton of illegal product but there was no prosecution whatsoever of any of those people. Where is the deterrent in that?
  (Lord Whitty) There are two channels. In the commercial channel the deterrent is confiscation of the whole load, so there is a deterrent in that respect. There are, of course, sanctions in relation to individual travellers as well but there are very few prosecutions and this is something that we need to address. There are sanctions in relation to bringing in anything that is above the legally entitled minimum, or bringing anything that is illegal through CITES or anything else. But there have been very few prosecutions, you are quite right.

  195. So the reality is the worst that is going to happen is it will be confiscated?
  (Lord Whitty) For most people it has been that.

  196. That is the message we send out, is it?
  (Lord Whitty) Not on the posters because that says you are going to be fined £5,000, so we are trying to up the deterrent effect of prosecutions. However, DEFRA is not an enforcing agency on the floor but what the enforcement agencies will say is that catching the people and enforcing the fine is a diversion of resources, whereas confiscation and deterrence will be more effective. Now, I have heard this argument in other contexts and I do not always agree with it, and I do think the level of prosecutions is rather strangely low and certainly if we raise the profile and the awareness nobody can say that they did not know and, even if ignorance is not normally a mitigation in law, in practice a lot of people will say they did not know that was the situation and they would be let off. I think that is the presumption of the prosecuting authorities. I think we ought to change that presumption by raising the profile in-flight, on the point of embarkation and when you land, and I think that we could increase the number of prosecutions that are likely to be successful.

  197. Obviously we are sitting round doing this investigation today and you are here because of foot and mouth disease—that is the essence of it, is it not—and very soon after the outbreak the feeding of swill was banned. If my memory serves me right, we were considering banning swill before but there was representation from the industry that stopped it.
  (Lord Whitty) Yes.

  198. Now it seemed a very easy thing to do to ban swill, and perhaps you could ask Mr Curry why he did not do it when he was Minister, but it never was done. Now that we have stopped that particular way of getting waste product into the food chain, what is happening to the product that would have gone to swill? Is there not a danger that it could still illegally get into the food chain or be put on landfill and be carried across and still contaminate farm animals?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes, there is, but it is a much lesser danger than if perfectly legal and normal channels of feeding certain animals were based on catering and food waste which was the case up until we banned swill, although it had to be treated, and as you will know the farm where the origin probably occurred in the original case would have been illegal because they had not treated the swill and it would have been illegal under pre-existing rules. So all rules can be broken but we have stopped in legal terms the most obvious and substantial way in which potentially diseased food got into the animal food chain.

  199. So you considered doing this before, or the government did, and there was representation from the farming industry to say that you should not ban swill, is that correct?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes. Although by the end most representational elements of the farming industry had accepted that something needed to be done and there were European developments in parallel. But it is still a matter of some resentment in parts of the farming sector

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