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  Controlling illegal meat imports


This speech was given as part of a debate in the House of Commons on 27 February 2002
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): Illegal imports were discussed at length during the passage of the Animal Health Bill. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) mentioned the amendments tabled by Labour Members. A striking aspect of the Second Reading debate was that Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members and those from the smaller parties all said that more must be done about illegal imports. One of the most memorable speeches in that debate was a veteran rant by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks).

There is evidence that the Government have been complacent about the matter. The Curry report and that of Devon county council flagged up the issue of illegal imports. I quoted on Report what the Minister said on Second Reading:

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

I do not know whether it is a coincidence that the column number is also the sign of the beast. I quoted that comment again just over a month later on 13 December. It did not seem that much had happened, certainly considering the Minister's answers. It is now 27 February, nearly four months later, and I have received a letter from the National Farmers Union, for which I am grateful, that says that it welcomes

"the Government's announcement that it will convene a high level forum on this issue, probably taking place next month."

Thank God for that. We have gone from interdepartmental discussions to a putative high-level forum. Presumably, if the NFU had known when the high-level forum was going to take place, it would not have used the word "probably". In other words, the Government had not even set a date, although if they have now, I would be grateful if the Minister told us today. The Government do not seem to be taking the issue seriously enough.

I have a letter, which was copied to me, from a constituent, Mr. Rod Tuck, of Diss in Norfolk to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In it he complains about the Minister. The letter says:

"Having read in Hansard details of the parliamentary debate on the Animal Health Bill on Thursday 13th December, 2001, I would like to register an official complaint against Elliot Morley MP, who seriously misled the House as detailed on Page 1025 at 1.45pm when answering a question from Mrs Winterton. With reference to the UK import controls on meat/meat products compared to those of Australia and America he states there is no significant difference between theirs and our custom controls on meat/meat products."

For the benefit of the Chamber, I have the exact quotation. The Minister said:

"On the claims that are being made about measures taken in America and Australia, I have been to those countries comparatively recently and I must say that I have not noticed any particular differences from the checks and security in our country." [Official Report, 13 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 1025.]

Mr. Tuck kindly sent me a copy of his correspondence with the US Department of the Treasury Customs Services, which contains a helpful list of the differences between the approaches of the UK and of Australia and the United States, but I will not try the Chamber's patience by listing them all.

Mr. Tuck also enclosed an e-mail that he had received from Mr. Jim Dewhirst, who had recently been to Australia. Mr. Dewhirst wrote:

"The details of the precautions that the Australians and New Zealanders take are as follows:-

"1) You receive a warning about 20 minutes before the plane lands that it is illegal to take into the country any product of animal or plant origin. If you are in doubt about anything that you are carrying you should declare it on arrival. You are warned that contravention of the rules will automatically lead to a hefty fine, or worse.

"2) On the flight you are given 'visitor cards' to complete. One of the questions asked is:- 'Have you been on a farm in the last 48 hrs?' Another is:- 'Do you possess any spiked shoes?' We had golf shoes with us, so we had to declare them.

"3) When we arrived at the terminal building all our hand luggage had to go through X-Ray machines."

This is in on arrival, not departure.

"They were looking for any illegal products, including food products and drugs.

"4) After the X-Ray machines we were then confronted by sniffer dogs. These were more in evidence in New Zealand than in Australia. We were even selected out of the crowd to help test a trainee dog: some contraband was hidden on our luggage trolley about 30 metres before we passed the dog. The dog did not fail to apprehend me!"

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : This is all very interesting, and I should say that I was in Canada two weeks ago and the procedures were no different from those at Heathrow. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that a recent report in the Scientific and Technical Review of the OIE, which is in the public domain, calculates that illegal meat imports into the USA each year vary between 450,000 kg and 4 million kg. That is not a criticism of the USA; it just demonstrates that people should not think other parts of the world have a panacea.

The hon. Gentleman should also remember that when we had an outbreak of foot and mouth, other countries rightly introduced procedures because of the risk. My final point is that New Zealand has 3.5 million visitors a year, while Britain has 48 million. There is the issue of managing these things at airports.

Mr. Bacon: I am grateful, and indeed honoured, that I managed to provoke the Minister into intervening so early in the debate. I accept that there is no panacea; no Opposition Member believes that there is. The problems are plainly serious. The United States is a much larger country than ours with huge land borders and five times our population. I would be interested to hear comparative tonnages if the Minister has the figures. The Minister referred to New Zealand and the United States, but I was talking about Australia.

I should like to finish dealing with Mr. Dewhirst's fifth point. He states:

"When we arrived at Passport Control we were again given the third degree about illegal imports, particularly so when we arrived in Australia. It was at this stage that we handed over the cards that we had completed . . . Our golf shoes were taken away and disinfected, being returned in sealed plastic bags. When we arrived in Australia from New Zealand we had with us some sea shells and some enormous pine cones that Kate" -

Mr. Dewhirst's wife -

"had collected. After inspection of these we were told that we could keep most of the shells but definitely not the pine cones. It's rather ironic that if we had not gone to Australia, but returned straight home to the UK, we would have had no problems whatsoever keeping the pine cones, in fact we would not have even needed to declare them. If I'd had a mind to do it, I could no doubt have waltzed through Customs with half a dead alligator in my luggage, without anyone even bothering to challenge me."

Mr. Dewhirst may be exaggerating, but such checks on arrival, X-ray checks, sniffer dogs, taking items away in plastic bags and disinfecting them, do take place. The story shows how seriously the problem is taken there. Such measures would illustrate to people going through the system the Government's perception that travellers should take the matter more seriously. As the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) said, it is a question not just of doing things behind closed doors with curtains drawn, but of getting the message across to people that it is a serious issue. The Government say that they have put up posters and are trying to do more.

Last Friday I returned to the United Kingdom after a long-haul transatlantic flight. I landed at a Royal Air Force base at which no checks of any sort took place. Signs on the plane reminded armed forces personnel about the dangers of criminal activity with drugs, but no mention was made of animal imports. When we landed at the airport, I saw no posters, no customs officers and no checks. I could indeed have waltzed through with half a dead alligator.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I have written to the Minister about a leaflet that I picked up in Detroit airport, which asked me if I had visited the UK and been on a farm. It specified the UK, which doubtless does untold damage to our tourist industry. On my return to the UK, I went through the airport and searched high and low for any signs asking me whether I was bringing meat into the country. I found one, but I would not have done so had I not been pushing a pram, because it was next to the lift; disabled people may also have seen it.

Mr. Bacon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As for writing to the Minister, I wish him luck. Many of us know that the chances of receiving a reply of any sort from DEFRA within three or four months are extremely slim. I recently wrote to a DEFRA official in Bristol in the hope that he might be able to help my constituent. I explained in the letter that there was no point in writing to Ministers. I had explained to my constituent beforehand that that was what I intended to do because I knew that at least two months would pass before I received an apology for not receiving a reply. I certainly wish my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) luck.

My hon. Friend makes a good point—the problem is not being flagged up openly enough. As a letter from the National Farmers Union makes clear:

"The admission that no further resources have been allocated to scrutinising personal imports at Heathrow airport since February last year underlines the need for no more delay in a firm grip being taken of this vital issue."

Customs and Excise collects £102,000 million in various duties. Its primary function is obviously collecting revenue, not necessarily deciding how that revenue is spent. It is important to recognise that the resources are there if the political will is there too. There is increasing consensus across all parties about the need to do something about this matter. The political will should be there to take a firm grip on this issue.