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Railway Freight Trucks

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 11 January 1990

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has to provide for the inspection of railway freight trucks travelling to the United Kingdom from the continent after the opening of the Channel tunnel.

Our intention will be to complete inspections of incoming rail freight as quickly as is possible, consistent with the need to safeguard human, animal, plant and fish health, but the precise arrangements will depend on decisions still to be taken in the Community.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it must be in the interests of the country as a whole that there should be the speediest possible transit for freight trains to Britain? Does that not require health inspections to be carried out at several locations, just as is proposed for Customs examinations? Would it not be ridiculous if all the freight wagons had to wait at Willesden, or some other spot in London, for health examinations, which would delay transit to the north and other areas?

I am determined to do that as quickly as possible, so long as we can also safeguard animal, plant and fish health. That has always been and it continues to be our priority. That is why we are the independent protectors of the health of our nation. No one else can be.

Will the Minister discuss the animal quarantine regulations with the National Union of Railwaymen?

I am happy to discuss the animal quarantine regulations with anyone, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that first I want to find out how we are to operate the regulations on both sides of the Channel. I need to have clear information about that before I hold wider discussions. If, however, the hon. Gentleman wishes me to look into any particular matter, I shall be happy to do so.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the methods of checking food imports proposed by the Labour party, which involve detaining the food until it goes bad, would be illegal anyway under European Community law?

It is a great sadness that in the past week the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the official spokesman for the Opposition, told people that he would have broken European Community law by holding up food coming into Britain until it had been tested. That is wholly contrary to European law and would do British farmers and the British farming industry great harm, because every other European country would treat our products in exactly the same way. The hon. Gentleman was among the first to attack the French when they attempted similar checks on sheepmeat.

Does the Minister deny that here is a clause in European legislation that allows him to prohibit contaminated food from entering Britain when public health is at risk? Does he further deny that salmonella-contaminated eggs have been coming into this country from Holland and that in the four days awaiting the test results those contaminated eggs were for sale in shops in Britain? Why should there be two standards, one for British eggs and one for foreign eggs?

Of course, British eggs are healthier because we have tougher rules here than in any other EC country. The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself for misleading the British people. He knows that what he proposes would be wholly contrary to European Community law, and he should not perpetrate what is entirely wrong.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that much of the inspection of inter-European traffic is necessary because health regulations in the rest of Europe do not come up to our standards? It seems wrong that British farmers have taken such stringent measures to get rid of salmonella in eggs while Dutch and other farmers do not have the same regulations.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is why we are encouraging a campaign for all the boxes of British eggs to be marked, "British". That is why there will be notices in almost every supermarket pointing out that the eggs sold are British and that is why we remind British farmers that, instead of complaining about imports, they should be campaigning about the advantages of British eggs, which are better protected than any others in Europe. Above all, we are fighting in the European Community to bring other countries up to our standards.