Memorandum submitted by Hillingdon Borough Council (F17)
BRIEFING NOTE: ACTION REQUIRED TO ADDRESS ILLEGAL IMPORT ISSUES
1. A SINGLE AGENCY TO CONTROL ILLEGAL IMPORT ISSUES
As first port of call, it is suggested that this should be the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Currently responsibility is shared as follows:
(i) DEFRAsingle EU competent authority with responsibility for border inspection posts and veterinary checks etc specifically for products of animal origin;
(ii) FSAresponsibility overall for food safety but particularly for imported foods of non-animal origin;
(iii) Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate;
(iv) Horticultural Marketing Inspectorate; and
It is recommended that all agencies/enforcers report to the FSA in the first instance. The FSA would be able to co-ordinate all issues and audit performance standards. Cascade down, "central body"co-ordinated across PHAs/LAs.
Animal health/plant health issues would separately be reported to the relevant departments.
DEFRA should remain the single competent authority for the EU.
Whilst new powers are welcome, they will be ineffective without adequate resources.
Legal import inspection charges may be passed on to importers.
For illegal imports none can be made.
(i) Facilities for examination
Whilst border inspection posts offer some facilities, these are designed for checks on imports declared. There is a need to provide facilities to search/examine personal baggage and cargoes where illegal imports are suspected. The matter of facilities becomes the biggest problem where there is no border inspection post, ie there are no facilities for such checks to be made. In these circumstances complete reliance is currently placed upon use of customs facilities. Examples of such places are the regional airports eg London City.
(ii) Detention Facilities
The new regulations provide for illegal imports to be detained for 60 days, to allow re-export. This raises issues of storage and temperature control facilities.
Adequate staff must be provided for implementation of the new legislation and to increase controls on illegal imports.
The Association of Port Health Authorities has suggested that there should be some 10 teams of specialist officers located at major sea and airports. Each team should comprise some six officers, two or three of which should be suitably experienced Environmental Health Officers. It is estimated that the cost of running such teams might be in the region of £3 million per year after initial set up costs. This estimate assumes free availability of HM Customs and Excise inspection halls at both sea and air ports and excludes the costs of any additional holding facilities for products seized.
Funding needs to be dedicated to illegal import controls and as such should be specifically allocated. It is suggested that DEFRA holds such funding and allocate it to local authorities/port health authorities depending on delivery of agreed action plans.
3. EU CONSISTENCY AND NATIONAL GUIDANCE
There is a particular need for EU consistency. At present controls on products across the EU, particularly in relation to products of non-animal origin, are variable. A consistent EU policy is required. Nationally there is need for guidance on controls, particularly at points of entry where there are no border inspection posts.
POTENTIAL QUESTION AREAS
Q1. What is the current scale of the illegal imports problem?
The current scale of the illegal imports problem is unknown. However, a number of checks have been made that give indications as to the problems that exist.
Limited checks have been made at some airports, and show significant numbers of passengers from African countries carrying imports of animal origin in their baggage. This may be more extensive and may not relate only to African countries. At present, it is mainly the African flights that have been targeted.
Some 20 operations have been carried out at London Gatwick in the last 12 months and these have found over two tons of illegal imported foodstuffs. One flight from Gambia revealed some 489 kilograms of illegal product. It should be noted that in these operations, the baggage check was not comprehensive, due to the staff resource involved.
At Heathrow Airport there are some 25 aircraft landing per hour and some 64 million passengers pass through the airport each year.
Large quantities of illegal products are being found. In Easter 2001, a check carried out revealed one passenger with 100 kilograms of illegal product in their personal baggage.
Checking flights is resource intensive, in one example some 25 staff were involved from customs, port health, plant health inspectorate etc.
Other issues associated include lack of containment for illegal imports and inadequate penalties.
Considerable problems have also been encountered at London City airport, where flights all come from the EU.
Problems are similarly found at seaports and the potential for illegal importation is considerably higher, due to the greater volume of containers that pass through.
Q2. Are the changes that have recently been made to the legislation sufficient?
The increased powers are welcome.
However, there are concerns regarding the haste of the introduction of the regulations and the lack of guidance.
Issues arising include:
(a) the lack of a stop-power associated with the search-power. Without this, joint working with customs officials will be required which would limit the operation of port health enforcement. It has been said that an obstruction charge might be raised against people who refuse to stop and open their bags, however this will only be effective if the person is a UK resident and subsequent action can be taken. A number of checks at Gatwick Airport carried out showed that the majority of persons carrying illegal imports were not UK residents.
(b) Lack of notice to support the legislation.
Action: Amendments are required to the legislation together with comprehensive guidance and training on the new regulations.
It is noted that although the regulations were introduced on 22 May 2002, there has been restricted availability of a published copy. It is also noted that guidance has not been provided on the previous changes to the import regulations made in 2001 that allowed inland authorities to deal with products that were believed to be illegally imported. The problem is further exacerbated by evidence that inland local authorities have limited knowledge of this area.
In order for the legislation to be effectively implemented, adequate resources must be provided. The new legislation will raise public expectation, but without the resources to implement it, improved standards will not be deliverable.
Q3. What differences will the legislative changes make?
As previously stated, if adequate resources are not provided there will be little difference made.
Local authorities are under spending pressure and look for cutbacks.
Procedures to control illegal imports are directly funded by local authorities at present, primarily from council tax payers. Central funding will be needed.
Action: Central funding must be provided. It is recommended that this be controlled by DEFRA and that it be drawn down by port health/enforcement authorities on delivery of their action plans, that have been approved by DEFRA.
Q4. Are there any other legislative changes needed?
Additional legislative changes are suggested as follows.
Action: Prior notification of all food stuffs.
This would allow targeting of "risk" cargoes. Particular problems can be encountered at airports where there may be rapid transit of products not of animal origin to Enhanced Rapid Transit Sheds (ERTS). Goods may go directly to ERTS before customs clearance, provided that the customs entry is made within seven days.
Action: Personal imports of products of animal origin should be banned.
Where checks have been made, it has been revealed that there is considerable confusion about allowances of personal imports and there appears to be no overriding need for such personal imports. It is accepted that this is an EU issue and the government's commitment to progressing this matter in Europe is welcomed.
Action: Imported product manifests should be more detailed.
Evidence suggests that often containers are filled with multiple consignments and complete details are not always available. Proper information would allow better targeting of enforcement activity.
Q5. Have you any experience of how similar problems (ie illegal imports) are handled in Europe?
There is no particular knowledge within members as to this matter. However, significant problems of imports in passenger baggage have been found at London City airport, where flights only arrive from European destinations. It is clear that these importations are arriving in the baggage of passengers transiting through other European airports. This suggests that there are inadequate controls at certain points within Europe.
Q6. What are your views on the DEFRA action plans?
The action plan is welcomed as far as it goes. However, it does not address a number of issues. Action is required in the following areas:
Action: There is a need for the risk assessment on illegal imports to encompass potential human health problems.
It is understood that the Veterinary Laboratory Agency risk assessment centres on animal health.
The risk assessment needs to be extended to consider the potential human health problems and should also be extended beyond purely illegal imports of meat and meat products.
Q7. What additional resources and facilities are needed to implement the legislative changes that have been made?
A relatively few local authorities, where major ports and airports are situated, will bear the brunt of the introduction of the new controls on illegal imports. They should receive specifically targeted funding to assist in the enhanced controls.
Action: Targeted funding should be provided to cover the enhanced enforcement requirements.
The Association of Port Health Authorities believes additional resources might be targeted through the provision of specialist teams. It is suggested that some 10 teams of six officers would satisfy this requirement. The teams could be located at the largest seaports and airports and could also cover checks at smaller ports within their region. The teams should contain two or three environmental health officers supported by technical assistants. It is estimated that the costs of running these might be in the region of £3 million per year after initial set up costs. This estimate assumes free availability of HM Customs and Excise inspection halls and excludes the costs of any additional holding facilities for products seized.
Enhanced training is also required for enforcement officers, together with adequate provision of facilities and extended sampling regimes.
It has been suggested that a personal tax on people entering the country might assist with such funding. If such a suggestion were to be implemented the tax should be dedicated to the implementation of the controls.
Q8. How effective is co-operation between the different agencies involved in enforcement?
Co-operation is improving greatly, however there needs to be further effort in breaking down barriers between different departments in government.
There also needs to be a good system of linkage between port enforcement and inland enforcement authorities and vice versa.
25 June 2002