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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



  220. And if it was not, if another body was set up to take on this central co-ordinating role, what implications might that have for the existing roles of the different agencies currently involved?
  (Lord Whitty) I think it depends. The government is engaged in reviewing the roles of various agencies. Most of the port health people are local authority employed. There is an argument that that should be a national agency; there is an argument that there should be better co-ordination between that and Customs & Excise and their own people and the FSA. I think a lot can be achieved through better co-ordination but it may be that we need to go a step further in terms of changing the jurisdiction and merging some of the bodies concerned. Of course, it does go broader than food imports because once you involve any change in the jurisdiction of Customs & Excise, whose main priority has hitherto been in relation to contraband, drugs, explosives and terrorist activity, you could not subsume that within something which is food-threats led, so I think you have to ensure that the different dimensions are taken into account if you are going to make any structural change. I am not excluding any structural change, may I say.

  221. But do you think you will come to a firm conclusion in the near future that either we carry on with the existing agencies co-ordinated in a fashion or a single body might be more appropriate? Rather than that being on-going, is there going to be a conclusion to that internal debate?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes, but we have to recognise that, if the conclusion is broadly the status quo or if it is a change, there are always going to be boundary issues, and it is a question of how those are managed and how we establish priorities between the various core responsibilities and maximising the opportunities between the various agencies. Whatever structure we have will, for a particular purpose, need serious management and co-ordination. But, for this phase of assessing any need for change in either structure or legal responsibilities, there will be an endpoint. I cannot say when that is but we are addressing that as a matter of some urgency.

  222. When the sub-committee visited Heathrow it was told that a new information-sharing network was set up—another acronym, "ILAPS" I suspect—the illegal imports database. How has the introduction of that database been received, and how can the information from this database, when it presumably gets full of information, be used to best advantage to achieve the objective we all want?
  (Lord Whitty) It will provide quite a lot of the information which the immediate risk assessment is based on and it will provide it on a continuous basis, because all the information will be shared and analysed.

  223. Amongst whom?
  (Lord Whitty) Customs, the Port Authorities, ourselves, information from abroad, the Food Standards Agency, etc, and will be used to build up pictures of changing patterns of threat and therefore a policy, and resource and priority decisions which will have to be based on that.
  (Ms Wordley) The database was set up pretty much from a standing start. We had virtually no data so it took some time to build up anything that was useful at all because you cannot form a clear picture until you have a reasonable amount of data on the database. In the light of the first few months of getting this information, we were able to make some preliminary judgments about the sort of areas where the main problems seemed to be arising, but the data was still very limited and hence we could not really with any confidence say those were the main risk areas. Hence there was the need to do the risk assessment which will give us a better assessment of what the probabilities are. However, one useful thing that is coming out of the first stage of the risk assessment is it has enabled us to revisit the quality of the data we are getting on the illegal imports database and in fact, as a result of some of the work that Marion's team has done, we have discovered that some of the seizures simply had not been reported to the database so we now have a great deal of better information on that database; the quality is improving all the time, and I think the enforcement agencies now have a better understanding of what it is we want them to report to us, so we are building up a much more robust central database which will continue in future. I should, however, say there is a slight danger of drawing too firm a conclusion from that database itself because there is a risk of having a self-fulfilling prophecy that you get seizures from certain countries, let us say, on certain flights, so you go back and look again at those flights and you get more, so it looks as though that might well be the area where the main problem is and you may have missed other areas of significant risk. This is one of these areas of gaps that the risk assessment is attempting to try and fill to make sure we are not missing important areas of risk in the current data we have.

  224. So in terms of the risk assessment and the probability curves, and you took me back about forty years in my maths and doing probability curves, first of all, you did not have all the information which is now coming out, apparently—
  (Dr Wooldridge) I rather doubt we will ever have all of the information.

  225. You will have significantly less information than perhaps you might have had, but my simple question is this: did the fact that we had not had foot and mouth here for thirty years make it less probable or more probable that we were going to have foot and mouth?
  (Dr Wooldridge) If you have a probability per year then the fact that it is thirty years since it last happened, or however long, is not going to affect that probability per year in itself. However, conditions in the world will have changed over that time: travel will have changed: the number of people in this country who want to import may have changed—I am sure it has—and therefore conditions themselves will have changed, so the likelihood is undoubtedly changing all the time. Unfortunately it is changing as we do the risk assessment.

  226. And all those, it would appear, add to the probability that we would, rather than would not?
  (Dr Wooldridge) That is my personal opinion but we have not finished the risk assessment yet, so I cannot tell you that is what we have found!


  227. Let us take you back to the inter agency work and the possibility of changing roles and responsibilities. That is still there for discussion; it will not happen until after the risk assessment is available; but you were careful not to tell us what the length of that debate was going to be. It is important in a way to put a full stop at the end of that sentence. What kind of time period do you have in mind for discussion on this?
  (Lord Whitty) We are engaged in the study across government over the summer. Quite how long it will last into the autumn, to the end of the year, really depends on the complexity and the number of options they come up with. I would not like to put an absolute end date on it, but it is months not years.

Mr Mark Todd

  228. What exactly are you recording on this database?
  (Ms Wordley) Seizures, primarily.

  229. We are talking about seizures which are from personal imports, from searches of containers—anything?
  (Ms Wordley) Yes.

  230. And you record where they come from, presumably? Who is carrying them? What exactly they were? The port of entry? Destinations, if you can be clear about them?
  (Ms Wordley) We have a pro forma which we ask the enforcement authorities to complete. The information is not complete on everything so on some seizures, for instance, we know the weight but on others we do not know the weight, so the data is rather patchy. As I said, we are improving the quality of it.

  231. Is it mandatory to fill it in or is it something they do if they feel they have the time?
  (Ms Wordley) I think it is fair to say there is rather more weight behind it than just that they fill it in if they have time, but it is an agreement between the agencies that we will pool and share this data.

  232. Would it be helpful if it were mandatory? It seems pretty critical if we are to track down the obvious sources of this that it is an obligation and not something where someone says, "Oh, well..."—
  (Lord Whitty) It is a standard procedure but I think what we are saying is that not all historic data is based on a full observance of the standard procedure.

  233. We have already heard how under-resourced some of the port authorities think they are. I am very familiar with DEFRA forms and I would be surprised if this is a simple one.
  (Lord Whitty) Simpler than some!

  234. Good, but that would still indicate that it might not be filled in with enthusiasm by an extremely busy person.
  (Lord Whitty) One of the dimensions of this great co-ordination that we have not really mentioned is that it brings the IT operations of the various agencies together and there is a considerable advantage in that. We are not quite at the point where we are maximising that advantage but clearly it will become easier as that co-operation grows to get a standard and effective basis for analysis.

  235. Could you send us a sample of the form?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes.

Mr Simpson

  236. In paragraph 36 of your helpful memorandum, you outline the fact that, on 22 May of this year, "... legislative changes came into effect to extend the search powers of local authority enforcement officers... The Department will provide guidance and assistance to enforcement officers to ensure that their powers are used properly...". From the evidence that we have received and from what we were told when we visited Heathrow, they have not received any such guidance. Why is that?
  (Lord Whitty) I think the need to provide search powers for the Port Health Authorities was well established and to some extent there was an assumption that they would be able to use them instantly, but in the event we need some experience of how they are used and the problems they engage in when using those powers before we can give a definitive protocol for how they should in future carry them out. That will not be very far off but we have yet to finalise that. I think we are aiming at getting it done by the end of July.
  (Ms Wordley) By the beginning of August. We had a meeting last week at official level and, in light of that, we now have a small working group which is going to try and draw up a fairly simple protocol. Ideally, yes, we would have had it in place before now but our target is to get it agreed by 1 August.

  237. It struck us as being the cart before the horse. Certainly environment officers at Heathrow found it rather strange that it was a come-as-you-are party kind of thing, and therefore it was up to them to fly by the seat of their pants. Secondly, the really crucial issue that comes from all the evidence from environmental health officers is that they have legal powers to search but they do not have legal powers to stop and search. Why did you decide not to give them legal powers to stop and search?
  (Lord Whitty) The two are different issues. The main problem was that, up until that point, only Customs officials had the ability to require people to search the luggage. There are those who argue we should have moved further to give them powers to stop and detain, but this gets them into the area where Customs are operating with quasi police powers and they would have to have the ability to enforce that detention which brings them into a whole different area of operation, because Customs have the ability to detain people and to call on reinforcements, if you like, for people if they are doing a runner whereas, under their direct control at least, the port authorities do not have that. I am not excluding the possibility in the context of the wider review which we mentioned that we would revisit that issue, but it does require back-up to make it effective.

  238. I understand. I am sure that they all welcome the fact that you are going to look at it. Finally, what further changes to legislation do you think are required to help strengthen your aim of preventing illegal meat imports?
  (Lord Whitty) There are two issues. One is a European legislation issue. On the commercial import side, I think the European regime works reasonably well. On the passenger side, there is, in the British Government's view, a clear problem about the exclusion of one kilogram of meat, one kilogram of fish, which has been for some time the European de minimis conclusion, although if you add everything else up you get a fair bag of food through from third countries into the European Union. We think the meat-related one should be dropped and probably some of the others as well. As far as the meat-related one is concerned, we have raised this very firmly with Commissioner Byrne, initially as part of our approach to Europe, but more recently he has put it to one of the Commission working groups. I think today the Veterinary Committee are having a preliminary consideration about this. The view of the Commission is that indeed we should do this. Some Member States do not take the same view, but the Commission officials have come out in favour of that position. Hopefully, if we get that, that will be a major change in relation to passenger imports. I think any changes relating to the UK's own legislation internally would relate to the jurisdiction and would be part of the product of any assessment of whether we need any change in the relative powers of the various agencies involved.

Mr Todd

  239. The EU Food and Veterinary Office produced a report of a mission to the United Kingdom from 15 October 2001 which said that the performance of the competent authorities needs considerable improvement. Do you recognise that?
  (Lord Whitty) I recognise the report. I recognise that there were a number of criticisms in that report, some of which we accept, some of which we feel are exaggerated in that they found few errors in the procedure and have generalised the conclusions. In general, though, we do accept that we do need a better system to allow the oversight of the effort, and we have agreed with the port operators, with the BIP operators, a detailed action plan which we have now sent to the Commission. We think that basically the FVO report was dealing with the administrative direction, rather than assessing the effectiveness of stopping illegal imports coming in—they had really no comment to make on that dimension—and some of these administrative dimensions do need to be addressed. I think the impression of the report is that they found more drastic failings than they actually did. In so far as they are serious failings, we are addressing them.

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