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Diana Organ: May I answer the first intervention before I do so? We have to target resources, but my concern is that we need more systematic and rigorous controls at the point of entry so that we can catch people
Is not that evidence that the Government recognise that the potential costs of getting it wrong are so huge that it is worth a bit of investmenta favourite word of the Government"up-front" to ensure that we get it right?
Diana Organ: There will always be some level of risk, especially on food issues. We seek to improve the biosecurity of the nation through the Bill, but we cannot have a 100 per cent. risk-free situation and say that nothing will ever break through the barrier that we are trying to erect. There is always a cost to set against every benefit. I am arguing for greater and more targeted resources and an annual report, because it is obvious that the present measures have failed us in the past.
Mr. Simon Thomas: The debate is slightly off target, because it is not important that we decide today what constitutes the greatest risk to animal health, be it a ham sandwich or an illegal cargo of Brazilian meat entering via the Republic of Ireland. What we need to decide is whether it is right and proper that the Government should tell us annually what steps they have taken to crack down on such offences. It is on that basis that we could hold the Government to account. We need that open accountability and auditing of the Government's work. The hon. Lady is answering the points well, but the debate is not concentrating on the crucial issue.
Diana Organ: I give great thanks to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. This is a sub-debate which does not go to the heart of the matter. The real point is that we want an annual report and more targeted resources. More information should be given to the travelling public, but we want the Bill to improve control measures at ports and airports and to strengthen biosecurity.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Most hon. Members have received correspondence from dismayed farmers and people in the agriculture industry, expressing much the same sentiments as have been heard in the past hour. Many people involved in this exercise recognise that we need stronger and better regulation of food imports. As has been pointed out, the new clauses offer a mechanism for keeping matters under constant and vigilant review.
People who work at our ports and airports would welcome having the matter raised regularly, as that would ensure that they were given the support needed to do their jobs effectively. Financial support is important, but so, for instance, are proper notices and leaflets. They would bring the matter to people's attention before they disembark in this country, and they represent a cheap way to remind people to take care.
Tony Cunningham (Workington): That is an important point. Some options are simple and cheap. For example, people checking in luggage at airports are asked whether they packed the bag themselves. Similarly, a few simple questions when people return to the country would remind them of the portion of pork pie or sandwich that they have in their possession. They do not bring such material in deliberately, but an appropriate question and the correct signage could be helpful.
Mr. Breed: I agree. That would command the support of most people. However, some ports have better facilities than others. Early on in the foot and mouth crisis, I spent five or six weeks submitting requests to visit ports to look at their facilities. Eventually, it was agreed that I could visit Felixstowe.
Felixstowe has impressive facilities for checking imports. Refrigeration units allow refrigerated containers to be checked, and a computerised system checks containers' provenance. In addition, the port has many expert staff, who do admirable work. Trading standards officers, the port health authority and the Customs and Excise work together as they check containers. That was impressive.
I wonder, however, whether I was allowed to see Felixstowe because it would make me think that other ports' facilities were equally impressive. I suspect that they are not. People who deliberately try to introduce illegal meats are unlikely to bring them through the port at which there is the greatest likelihood that they will be caught. They are more likely to go for the weakest link in the chain of security around the country.
We need to ensure that all airports and seaports have the proper facilities. Improving security arrangements at one port will only put more pressure on other ports and other forms of entry. I hope that the Government will recognise that part of the war against foot and mouth disease and other diseases involves improving ports' facilities. Officials' ability to do their work properly needs to be reviewed regularly.
I was interested to read recently that European legislation in the new year will try to make the whole of Europe a fortress against third-country imports. A clear problem at Felixstowe involved imports from European countries which had originally been part of third-country imports into those countries. Officials' ability to check those imports was insignificant.
It is a weakness in the system that imports from Thailand, Brazil, South America and Asia, for instance, can go to other European countries before being passed on to Britain. Such imports are subject to very little checking. I do not know what input Britain has had into the discussions of the forthcoming European legislation, but it is a major problem. Being an island, Britain has more ability to protect itself than other countries. I hope that we have contributed to discussion of the introduction of that legislation and made sure that we do not suffer from third-country imports that pass through another European country.
The new clauses have been tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The proposals that they contain do not go much beyond what the Government were doing anyway. If there had been regular reviews or reports after the 1967 outbreak, some of the measures that we now believe to be necessary might have been introduced earlier. If those matters had been raised in a debate or report, we might have been alerted beforehand to some of the problems at the heart of this year's foot and mouth crisis.
If things like the movement of animalsand especially of sheepthe growth of market traders, and the conditions in markets had featured in previous annual reports, we might not have had to face some of the problems encountered this year.
The new clauses are based on common sense. If the Government are undertaking regular reports and reviews, there is no reason whygiven their new-found transparency and openness about the actions that they are takingthey should not publish their findings and present them to Parliament. A proper annual review could take into account the new information arising from the inquiries that are in hand. It would allow the House to adapt to new circumstances and to ensure that new forms of security and defence were established. In that way, we could avoid subjecting the country to more disease than might reasonably be expected.
I hope that even if he cannot support the new clauses, the Minister will support the desire expressed in them for openness and transparency so that a regular review is not just seen by a Department but laid before Parliament. That would ensure that we are vigilant in future, bearing in mind the enormous cost of foot and mouth for the country and the way in which it has ravaged our rural economy. Producing an annual review and report would be an inexpensive and reasonable way of doing that, and I hope that the Minister will support the new clause.
Mr. Drew: I congratulate the official Opposition on catching us up with regard to new clause 1. If they had got a move on in Committee, we might have had this debate then. I remember that the new clause was first down in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Diana Organ). However, as an altruistic soul, I do not claim ownership. I am looking forward to what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say. There is a unanimity of purpose in dealing with imports and, more particularly, improving co-ordination of the way in which we deal with them.
In a sense, I am pleased that the official Opposition are not aiming to strengthen existing legislation on controlling imports. I have talked to the National Farmers Union, and have been led to believe that the Animal Health Act 1981 is sufficiently strong to control imports of illegal and unacceptable foodstuffs into the country. It is a question of co-ordinating and monitoring the situation and, as new clause 4 specifies, publishing a report of what is going on.
I hope that my hon. Friend can tell us what is happening. There is a need to tighten things up, although we might be 20 years or more too late, as the Northumberland report highlighted. It is amazing what people can find in the Northumberland report as worthy of prioritisation. When I look through it, I do not always
So many organisations are involved in controlling imports that we must consider the issue carefully. They include Customs and Excise, the Home Office, the Food Standards Agency and local authorities. Two-tier systemsor three-tier, like minehave district environmental health officers and county council trading standards officers and, last but not least, the port health authorities.