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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-250)



  240. Have you prepared a rebuttal and response to it?
  (Lord Whitty) It is not a rebuttal. We are engaging in constructive dialogue with the Commission and giving them our action plan.

  241. Diplomatic language anyway?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes. They did not say that there was any indication that products which would have failed the checks were actually being let through, which is, in a sense, the important thing.

Mr Curry

  242. Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Let us say that the foot and mouth outbreak and the classical swine fever outbreak all happened in a different country, not in the UK, that for a generation we had had completely free movement and very little in the way of checks and we had no problem. The Prime Minister says to you, "I've just come back from so-and-so and panic in case it could happen in Britain. I would like you, Lord Whitty, to go away and come up with a scheme to provide an effective monitoring of these imports, starting absolutely from scratch." Do you imagine that the scheme you would recommend would be anything like the structure which now exists and which is described in your memorandum?
  (Lord Whitty) I think that if the Prime Minister were to tell me that this is number one border security priority, then the answer would clearly be no; we would start from, if you like, the creation of a single agency, making sure that was a top priority and that their visibility, rather than that of the customs, or the police or the airport authorities, meant they were the key people at the ports and airports. But at our borders we face a lot of threats, you need different agencies to deal with the range of threats, and some of their responsibilities will inevitably overlap. I know the Americans are now proposing to create one huge agency virtually dealing with absolutely every threat to the homeland that is conceivable and giving it a merging vast budget, but I do not think that that is the appropriate way forward. We do have to recognise that there are overlaps of priority, some of which will be greater at some times than others. I think one of the complications, for example, of our pursuing this threat was that in the middle of our assessments September 11 occurred and there was another whole range of things that we had to deal with, rightly, at that point and probably continuously, with greater priority than we might have wished for on the food side. So I think your hypothetical question is extremely hypothetical. If this were the only issue, I could devise quite a clear structure and clear regulations and legal powers, but it is not the only problem.

  243. Do you think, then, that your overview is that there is a case for the Prime Minister saying to somebody, "Well this isn't the only problem, there's a question of drugs and there are the other issues. Perhaps we ought to start looking at a more effective co-ordination, perhaps sharing information there"? Is there not a danger that we are setting up different mechanisms all doing the same sort of analogous things in the airports?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes, I do think so. That is why, as I say, the question of co-ordination has to be broader than this particular objective. It has to be broader to cover all food threats, and it also has to be broader so that it fits in or certainly does not undermine the effectiveness of other forms of border control. One other point I would like to make to the Prime Minister, were he to present me with such a challenge, would be that we are a member of the European Union and the Single Market, and we would need to co-ordinate this with 15 and probably 25 States.

  244. I can envisage that we will have a set of kennels at Heathrow—the kennels for the drugs dogs, the kennels for the food dogs and the kennels for the firearms dogs—and they will all be fed by different people, on different diets. Do you think that the British have a particular talent for making things bloom?
  (Lord Whitty) As far as the kennels are concerned, essentially we already do have that. Customs have kennels at Heathrow, some of which are for drug sniffers and some of which are for explosive sniffers. We will have our sniffer dogs there who will be the meat sniffers. No doubt the kennels will look very similar, but they will be for different purposes and for all sorts of different handlers.

  Mr Simpson: Will there be one vet?


  245. We are going to stop our sniffing soon, but before we do—you have been very generous with your time—I would like to talk to you a little bit about resources. The Department used the concept—the Department being the overarching body—that, as you acknowledged earlier on, a lot of the enforcement work is done by other people, particularly local authority Port Health Authorities. In a sense, I think I am right in saying that they are funded for legal imports because there is a charging mechanism, is that right?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes.

  246. A persistent claim is, "This is an issue that has a higher political profile. We're doing work on it and, in effect, we're not funded to do it." Is there some strength in that argument?
  (Lord Whitty) I do not suppose you have many Ministers before you who say they do not need more resources. Certainly in this area there is a resource issue. The dimensions of the resource issue and which agency needs the resources I think will be better informed once we have completed the exercise both on the jurisdictional side and the risk assessment side, but my guess is that we would need more resources to make this fully effective. We have, as you would expect, raised these issues with the Treasury in the normal way and are in discussions both with them and with the other agencies involved in this area.

  247. Port Health Authorities are locally funded by the local council taxpayers. In a sense, these are national and international issues, and there is an argument to say that perhaps there ought to be a different funding mechanism to compensate for that, is there not?
  (Lord Whitty) There is. The local authority personnel are funded partly by the local taxpayers and mainly, as you said earlier, by the charges on importers. There is an argument for saying that that would be better funded nationally. Whether to say it needs better funding nationally means that you then create a national agency, rather than go through local authorities as secondary, is a different question and one I am not yet prepared to comment on. There is a resource issue here and one which we will learn the dimensions of and the allocation of better by the autumn.

Mr Curry

  248. The implications of this are wider. For example, if North Yorkshire trading standards officers pursue a major criminal activity, then that cost falls entirely on the council taxpayers in North Yorkshire. So the issue is a broader one than it appears, and it is a broader issue none the less?
  (Lord Whitty) It is, and it is one which gets us, as you know, Mr Curry, right into the heart of local government finance. I think I had probably better not stray too far down that road.


  249. I think you had better not. At one point I thought we were going to get into a debate on probability theory which perhaps a Select Committee should never do. Thanks very much for coming, and thank you to Ms Wordley and to Dr Wooldridge. You promised us one or two bits of paper. It will be helpful for our own timetable—because I do not think there is any secret, we would like to produce a short report before the recess—if you would let us have it as quickly as possible. Thank you once again.
  (Lord Whitty) Thank you very much. Could I hand in this booklet which we have just produced, hot off the press, which will form part of our publicity campaign. This is directed at trying to make sense of the structure of agencies for the importers.

Mr Todd

  250. An illegal imports cookbook!
  (Lord Whitty) That is coming as well!

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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