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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

A UK-wide authority to take over powers and responsibilities exercised by port health authorities and by Customs and Excise and local authority trading standards officers at sea and airports was proposed in a private member's Bill.

The Port Protection Authority Bill - supported by Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru MPs and by Labour's Albert Owen - aims to strengthen import controls to clamp down on illegal imports so minimising duties lost through smuggling and strengthening public health controls.

Introducing the Bill, which was given an unnopposed first reading. Roger Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, said it would simplify the current complex system and make lines of accountability more transparent. Present arrangements evolved for historic reasons and did not meet challenges of modern trading. Port health authorities, for example, were originally established to keep out human diseases such as plague and cholera, but now were mainly responsible for food imports of animal origin.

There are no port health authorities at UK airports and they operate only at some sea ports. Local authorities take over those duties in the absence of a port authority. For instance, three different local authorities were involved at Heathrow Airport because the various warehouses and buildings were in different council areas.

The Food Standards Agency is responsible for imports of food stuffs of non-animal origin, but Defra is responsible for meat and food stuffs of animal origins.

Mr Williams commented:'All those bodies have different powers of enforcement and function. The complexity is immense.

'Naturally, Customs and Excise is mainly concerned with the collection of import dutiesand discovering illegal drugs. Other illegal imports are of a lower priority, yet Customs and Excise is the authority with the greatest power to stop, search and detain goods'.

Evasion of duty on tobacco and alcohol put at risk the viability of UK pubs and shops. At the same time, the treasury was losing millions in revenue each year. Illegal food imports - which appeared to be increasing greatly - could have very damaging effects on human and animal health, such as the importation of foot and mouth.

Although some responsibilities overlap, there was lack of coverage in other areas. There was also a problem of agencies sharing intelligence in the fast moving world of imports and exports.

Mr Williams said most countries had far greater regulations on individual travellers than the UK and they undertook far more stringent surveillance. People entering those countries had to sign a declaration and deposit any food in waste containers. Britain had a far more lax approach and lacked the resources even to implement those regulations we do have.

'A new single-purpose authority, adequately resourced, would not only raise additional sources of revenue but protect this country from the worst threats of disease. It would not curtail trading, which is so important to us, but would increase the confidence of consumers and customers, so trade would be enhanced', claimed Mr Williams.

The Bill will not become law in its present form, but its sponsors will hope it prompts inter-departmental discussion across Whitehall to address the concerns it highlights.

Hansard 1 May 2002: Column 953-955

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