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  Disease and illegal meat imports

This speech was given as part of the Animal Health Bill on 13 December 2001
Mr. Bacon: I shall start where my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) left off with the difference between the Government's talk and their action. Just this morning, I was speaking to a leading figure in the pig industry, who said:

"The Government has done nothing that would give anyone any confidence that a new outbreak isn't incubating right now."

- [Interruption] - I think that I heard the Minister say that it is not true. If it is not true, the Government are failing to communicate what they are doing, because that is the pig industry's impression. I have been in the House only a short time, and sitting on the Public Accounts Committee week after week, hearing tales of the Government getting things wrong, I have been particularly struck by the fact that one of the most important functions of Government is to identify and manage risks. The risk that we face from illegal animal imports, which new clause 1 does something to address, is extremely serious, and the Government failed even to mention it when introducing the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said.  This country has been exposed to the risk of many diseases from imported products over the years. We have had foot and mouth from Argentina, swine fever from Denmark and the Netherlands, enzootic bovine leukosis from Canada and maedi visna from Iceland, and I could go on. Indeed, my constituency was heavily affected by classical swine fever. Irrespective of whether new primary legislation is needed, what the Government are doing to co-ordinate the various agencies and to ensure that their powers are being properly used is exceptionally important.

As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) pointed out, many agencies are involved. Customs and Excise is responsible for controls on the international movement of all goods. Local authorities are responsible for inland checks on illegal food products, including those that have been illegally imported. Port health authorities are responsible for border checks on imported foods. The Meat Hygiene Service is responsible for enforcing hygiene controls on meat imported into licensed UK cutting plants. Again, I could go on. There is a perception, which is borne out by reality, that there is no, or at best insufficient, cohesion between those bodies.

The Government recognise that. I am told that an interdepartmental taskforce is reviewing the co-ordination of responsibilities. On Second Reading, the Minister referred to that, saying that he did not think that there was a need for primary legislation, but that

"DEFRA has been leading interdepartmental discussions"[Official Report, 12 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 666.]

with various agencies. That was a month ago, and I am not sure how much action has taken place since then. People want action and change, not simply talk.

The National Farmers Union acknowledges that, theoretically, the necessary legislative powers already exist. It goes on to say:

"However, we believe that there is an urgent need for a far more comprehensive review of the overall framework and resourcing of the UK's system of import controls to ensure their effective implementation.

Such a review should include a fundamental examination of the activity and responsibilities of central government, its agencies and local government in order to ensure coordinated activity and an effective import control regime".

It cannot be the case that we now have an effective import control regime, or we would not be spending so much time talking about the issue today. The regime cannot be effective when so many industry bodies are flagging up the fact that they think it is not.

The National Pig Association, which is of great interest to me because of the pig farming that is undertaken in my constituency, said:

"It is likely that both outbreaks"

foot and mouth disease and classical swine fever;

"started as a result of illegal imports of meat. There is an urgent need for the Government to act to reduce the risk of further outbreaks of imported diseases."

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the Devon foot and mouth inquiry, which is, perhaps, one of the most important pieces of evidence that has come to light so far. It is the first independent, or at least quasi-independent, review of the crisis. Its conclusion is so important that I should like to make sure that it is all entered on to the record. In paragraph 1.1 of its preliminary findings, the inquiry says:

"While it is certain that the disease entered this county via sheep bought by a Devon dealer from Longtown market in Cumbria, how it entered Britain is still a matter of conjecture. What is clear is that food is different from other internationally traded commodities and must be treated as such. It is fundamental to our existence, perishable and climate sensitive. No country or region can hope to meet consumer demand entirely from within its own boundaries. All of which means that while food traded internationally and within national borders is inevitable, it requires sensitive handling and rigorous bio-security. It was suggested to the inquiry that import controls of meat and other livestock products at the points of entry are inadequate and below the standard in countries free from Foot and Mouth."

That is why the inquiry goes on, in its first finding, in paragraph 1.2, to conclude:

"We therefore find that methods of import control must be tightened to the highest international standards and if necessary be the subject of new legislation. It is important that new powers are implemented promptly at ports and airports with the increase in staffing that that implies."

I referred earlier to the report of the Health and Safety Executive, "Reducing Risks, Protecting People". If we were to approach the risk management of imported diseases and related health and safety issues in the same way that manufacturers approach safety in their plants, we would have what are known as hazard analysis critical control points, or HACCPs. Imports are an obvious critical point of entry for disease into UK agriculture, but when introducing the Bill, the Government did not, despite the recommendations of the Devon inquiry, which my hon. Friend pointed out, even mention them.

Earlier this week The Daily Telegraph reported that there has been a new outbreak of Ebola in west Africa. That is, of course, a matter for human as well as animal health. Ebola has a fatality rate of about 70 per cent. It is suspected, although no one knows for certain, that it is carried by bats and ground rodents. Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), in the light of such reports it behoves the Government to examine seriously whether the resources devoted to controls at airports and ports of entry are adequate. Customs and Excise rakes in about 100 billion a year on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. It beggars belief that if the risk of a disease entering the country were sufficiently high, it would not be worth spending a considerable proportion of that sum to increase the security and biosecurity of people in this country.

New clause 1 is a modest step in the right direction in that it at least places an onus on the Government to report back to the House on their actions. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister will consider what has been said in this debate. On Second Reading, virtually every Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Member who spoke referred to the need for greater controls on imports. It is time that the Government took the issue much more seriously, and they could do so by accepting new clause 1.