TUESDAY 2 JULY 2002
Paddy Tipping, in the Chair
Memorandum submitted by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Examination of Witnesses
LORD WHITTY, a Member of the House of Lords, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Lords), DR MARIAN WOOLDRIDGE, Head of VLA Risk Assessment and MS JILL WORDLEY, Head of Illegal Imports Team, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.
(Lord Whitty) Jill Wordley, on my right, is Head of the Illegal Imports Unit - they are a great team - in DEFRA, and Dr Marian Wooldridge is from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. She is overseeing the risk assessment and other work in this area.
(Lord Whitty) If I can make an initial stab at that, and then I will ask Dr Wooldridge to explain the detail of the assessment itself. Clearly, in a global market and as a trading nation we are subject to the possibility of diseased meat - and, indeed, diseased plants - coming into the country. It is not clear whether or not there is any increased risk in recent years, nevertheless there is always a risk. The regime we had in place and have had in place, more or less, for the period since the Second World War did, of course, ensure or help ensure that we had no serious exotic disease for 30 years. No doubt that regime did contribute to that degree of safety in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, undoubtedly in that period and undoubtedly in almost any country, some illegal meat is imported and some of that illegal meat will be diseased. Before the epidemic and throughout the epidemic, we did point to the problems of border control, but the far more important issue is if there is a risk of that coming in, how do we stop it getting into the food chain and, if it does get into the food chain, how do we stop it spreading? Those, to us, were the more important challenges. That is why, for example, one of our initial measures after the outbreak was to ban pigswill containing meat products, which is now a European position. That was a direct route for illegal meat into the food chain. So we have concentrated, largely, on stopping it getting in the food chain and stopping the spread of it in the food chain. We also, I believe, need to recognise that there is a risk at the border and we need to try and minimise that risk as well. I am talking, primarily, perhaps I should explain, on the animal health side. There are, of course, other issues involved here: there are issues of public hygiene, which are primarily the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency (although, obviously, I have an interest as Minister for the food chain) and also issues of endangered species, which has also featured large in some of the publicity and some of the reality of the illegal meat trade, which is the responsibility of my department. On the animal health side, our main concern is to stop it getting into the food chain and then to stop it spreading. This is therefore a follow-on, to try and stop it getting in in the first place. What we have done within the Department is to recognise that, to talk to other departments, the agencies, the farming industry, about what the risk at the border is. We have found it necessary to try and place that discussion on a more scientific basis than has been the case in the past, and we therefore commissioned a very thorough and I hope robust risk assessment study and we will ask the VLA to carry that out. As I think you know, the end date of that is in September when, hopefully, greater light will be shed on this issue. That does not mean there are not measures we can take immediately and no doubt we will be going on to, but we are awaiting this risk assessment.
(Lord Whitty) Not universal, I have to say!
(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 allegation 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
(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.
(Lord Whitty) The Chairman did ask me what the balance of risk was.
(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.
(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 tension 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 train, 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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 indication 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.
(Lord Whitty) It is not offensive --
(Lord Whitty) I do not think that is true, with respect. I think there are mainly BAA or Customs & Excise announcements on that carousel.
(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.
(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.
(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!
(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.
(Lord Whitty) For most people it has been that.
(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.
(Lord Whitty) Yes.
(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.
(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
(Lord Whitty) Proved, no. The overwhelming probability is that it was.
(Lord Whitty) No.
(Lord Whitty) That is correct. Of course, all risk assessments are based on probability rather than on an individual case and it is that which the risk assessment is addressing - the probabilities.
(Lord Whitty) Most of science is about probability, these days.
(Lord Whitty) There are two elements of that risk, I think. The first is that, by and large, without wishing to disparage the catering trade as a whole, the least high quality and the least expensive forms of meat coming into the country do go into catering and institutional food rather than to and through the retail side. There is a much higher level of imports for catering purposes than for retail purposes. It is more likely, therefore, that some of that meat might have come from probably assignments which have come in across another European border from a country where there was some exposure to a disease. So there was a higher probability that, if it did get in, that kind of meat would be channelled through the catering trade and, secondly, that some of the personal imports, particularly the more exotic forms, might also be designed for a particular element of the catering trade. Secondly, there is the issue from the catering trade of the waste of the catering trade and where that would go compared with the waste of the retail sector or the municipal sector, and the treatment of catering waste has been less exemplary, and was, of course, traditionally the source for the legal use of that waste for swill for animals. All of this issue - the route from the point of entry into the animals and into the food chain - will be a significant part of the risk assessment, in particular module 3 of it, as I think is explained in that note.
(Lord Whitty) There are two aspects of this. There has been detected in the commercial trade some degree of illegal imports - not diseased imports but illegal because it is not properly labelled or from a country where we were not supposed to import from, and in that respect we are not necessarily talking about diseased meat but we are talking about the illegality of meat. Secondly, in terms of the passenger trade, there has been a number of examples particularly of exotic meat and fish where particular markets and particular parts of the catering trade seem to be being served by what are relatively small consignments being brought over by individuals. Most of that does not concern FMD susceptible species; some of it might bring other risks - not primarily an FMD or classical swine fever related risk but an illegal and potentially a public health risk.
(Lord Whitty) Yes.
(Lord Whitty) Primarily the Food Standards Agency who have issued their own action plan in this respect.
(Lord Whitty) Well, there is a Food Standards Agency assessment. I would not say it is the same for risk assessment.
(Ms Wooldridge) When we started this, I did speak with the Public Health Laboratory Service about it and told them that we were doing this and asked them if they wished to be a part of it, and that the methodology we were using would be equally applicable to human health risks. At the time they were otherwise occupied but we did discuss it: they are aware that it is being done: and if required at any point it could be linked into expand what we are doing and that could be taken into account and we could work with Food Standards, PHLS, Department of Health, or whatever, to do that and it would be comparatively simple to link that on. Still lots of information would have to be collected but the basic methodology for parts of that would be there.
(Lord Whitty) The Food Standards Agency themselves do indicate that there is a potential public health risk but, on the more extreme scares arising from that, they reckon that risk is extremely small indeed. I should point out, however, that we are in continuous contact with the FSA on this: we have regular meetings both at my level and at official and technical level, and the FSA agree that the priority in this area should be in relation to animal health although that does not exclude them taking action on public hygiene, public health and related areas as well.
(Lord Whitty) They were that we had only information on a limited number of seizures. The information was not necessarily shared even between the Port Health Authorities and we have spent some months in bringing together a more comprehensive view of the information we have. In addition, of course, the bulk of the seizures are not primarily detected through efforts whose original purpose was to look for illegal shipments of food; they have been looking for drugs or arms or just simple general checking and have been detected by Customs, so all of this information had not been properly collated either in terms of where it was being seized, what was being seized, or what the point of origin of those substances were. We have gone a lot further down that road but there are still some gaps and some of the early work, the first two modules of the risk assessment, are addressing those gaps now.
(Lord Whitty) It is probability based on more information than we had twelve months ago but, at the end of the day, it is probability and one has to make these judgments on the basis of it.
(Ms Wooldridge) No. What I was thinking was that we are scientists: we are trying to do the best scientific job that we can and we would do that for any Minister, anybody who asked us. With regard to the risk assessment and the probability issue, a risk assessment is about probability because you can never be one hundred per cent certain that something will not happen, and what we are trying to do is assess how likely something is to happen under a given set of circumstances such that, whatever is the part of the pathway which may allow it to happen which is the most crucial, or the several parts which are the most crucial, some sort of safeguard can be put in place, whatever that might be - I can come to that later if you like - in order to reduce that risk of something happening. Now if we are talking about, say, the import of foot and mouth disease from some other country to this country, whatever we do it will not ever be zero, so we are looking at the probability of it happening. We look at the probability under a set of circumstances; we may then decide to suggest some places where this could be reduced and they may be put in place, and then you have a different and, hopefully, reduced probability under the second set of circumstances and you keep pushing it down until you have got one that is acceptable to you as a country, bearing in mind that whatever you do has a cost so you are needing to look at the cost benefit, but you will never be certain where the outbreaks came from. By definition, if you are looking at a risk, you are dealing with uncertainty because a risk is a probability of something happening.
(Ms Wooldridge) That is broadly correct. With every risk assessment there is uncertainty by definition. With this particular one the uncertainties may be rather larger than in most and the reason is that, by definition, people are not rushing to tell you about illegal imports. Consequently every inference we make is based on a combination of known information about legal imports and the routes they go through plus the seizures that have been made and also, by definition, once they have been seized they are not part of the pathway so there is a lot of uncertainty by definition in this problem. Hence it is quite a complex problem; hence it requires quite a lot of time to do it; and hence the answers, because we will have a number of different points we can make comments on at the end, will be, "The probability of such-and-such is this but we cannot be certain: it may be up there and it may be down there". So we will get as close as we can.
(Lord Whitty) Not into the risk assessment we are talking about. Deliberate bio terrorism is not covered by the risk assessment. Clearly there is a concern, particularly post September 11 and the anthrax scare in America of forms of bio terrorism. It is primarily the responsibility of the Home Office to assess those risks rather than DEFRA, although DEFRA's official expertise is helpful and is being deployed, but the more likely form of bio terrorism will be a direct attack on human health, as the anthrax scare or smallpox scare was, rather than via an animal plague, particularly a plague like foot and mouth which is hardly transmissable to humans. So although I think there is probably a risk of bio terrorism, (a) it is being assessed against the other terrorist risks and (b) it is unlikely to be animal health that is the target for that terrorist risk although one cannot exclude that possibility either. But as compared with the inadvertent bringing in of illegal and possibly diseased meat, chancers and smugglers, our focus is on those three categories rather than bio terrorists.
(Lord Whitty) There are two issues. Firstly, we recognise already the need to raise public awareness so that we reduce the inadvertent dimension to which Mr Drew was referring, and there are certain other things we can do without having a wholly and probably difficult risk-based, cost benefit assessment. At the end, however, of the risk assessment, as Dr Wooldridge was pointing out, we will have an indication of what measures you can take to reduce the risk from X parts per million to Y parts per million, and we can probably cost the measures that will be needed in order to do that.
(Lord Whitty) Certainly that kind of calculation would have to be made but if it is one year in every hundred you always have to bear in mind it might be next year.
(Lord Whitty) I think it is fair to say that some commentators have taken it amiss in that respect. I do not think it is logically a correct assessment because clearly, once the disease breaks out and you have known and effective means of dealing with it and you know there are gaps in that, then closing the gaps in that has a very high probability of risk of success. It is not like saying you will move it from 100 years to 50: if you take certain measures they are 80/90 per cent likely to be successful in containing the disease. Likewise, if, for example, you are effectively banning the most obvious way of diseased catering waste getting into animal feed, that is likely to have a very high probability of success whereas, when you are dealing with the import assessment, then the probabilities and the risks and the difficulties are as you have described, and it is a much more difficult judgment. Nevertheless, I will accept that politically and presentationally, which are important issues here, it is very important that the government is seen to be minimising those risks where it can and making sure that the general public are aware of those risks, and that criminals are deterred, as far as is possible, from risking that themselves. I accept there is a psychological and presentational damage to it but there is also a real damage, and that psychology can only last so long, and it also has to be seen to be effective in real terms.
(Lord Whitty) We have the policy leads, the expertise in DEFRA and these agencies to provide the basis on which action is taken. We are not, as I said earlier, the on-the-ground enforcement agency in any of these circumstances, or not meat-related. We are occasionally on the plant health side.
(Lord Whitty) The setting of the frame work we can do. We are not in executive authority over Customs, the Port Health Authorities or others, but we have been given the lead in government and we are certainly the best-placed part of government to take that lead. If behind your question is the issue of whether better co-ordination and possibly a different structure is being considered, then the answer to that is yes. It may be that the present structure of responsibilities is not the most appropriate.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 Marian'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.
(Ms Wooldridge) I rather doubt we will ever have all of the information.
(Ms 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.
(Ms 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!
(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
(Ms Wordley) Seizures, primarily.
(Ms Wordley) Yes.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Lord Whitty) Simpler than some!
(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.
(Lord Whitty) Yes.
(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.
(Ms Wordley) Yes.
(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.
(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.
(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 IP 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.
(Lord Whitty) It is not a rebuttal. We are engaging in constructive dialogue with the Commission and giving them our action plan.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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?
(Lord Whitty) Yes.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Lord Whitty) That is coming as well!
Chairman: Thank you very much.