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Port Health Authorities

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 5 May 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

I am delighted to have secured the debate. I do not think that the subject of port health and port health authorities has been discussed in the Chamber before; indeed, I do not think that most people—including, I suspect, some hon. Members—know what a port health authority is or does. Just as many people assume that a port consists of a quay, some cranes, some trucks and some men unloading goods from ships on to trucks, many people, if they consider the matter at all, assume that a port health authority is about health in ports. Well, it is not; or, rather, it is about much more than that.

Port health authorities are, to put it simply, the last line of defence—and a very thin red line at that—for the United Kingdom as a whole. They protect us from incoming disease in humans or animals, from contaminated food, and from dangerous merchandise that has, as we know, entered the country in the past with devastating consequences. They provide the first and last opportunity for a nation that lives on trade, mostly through ports, to be defended from such unwanted intrusions.

If infected or unfit animal products enter the country, that concerns port health authorities. If sick or infected animals enter the country, that concerns port health authorities, along with others. If there are aflatoxins in peanut cargos, that concerns port health authorities. The preparations to combat a world influenza pandemic that we saw a while ago are very much a concern of port health authorities. Standards relating to food imported from outside the European Union are a central concern of port health authorities, as are the standards and certification of hygiene and cleanliness on cruise, cargo and passenger ships. The disinfecting of ships in ports concerns port health authorities, and many other things do as well.

About 120 port health authorities, or branches of such authorities, undertake the task of carrying out what I think we all agree are vital national functions. That number includes not only coastal ports, but inland ports and airports such those that serve London, including Gatwick. They are maintained and funded by local authorities, but—for there is a but—they are maintained mostly by the local authorities in whose areas most of a port sits, regardless of the national or regional importance of the work being undertaken. There is no line in local government revenue support grant marked “port health”, and there is no weighting factor in formula funding that recognises the existence of local authorities’ port health responsibilities. As a result, local authorities shoulder the cost by charging council tax payers. Moreover, there is no national underwriting of any aspect of port health authority activity. A national association, the Association of Port Health Authorities, undertakes national co-ordination and pursues national activities relating to port health, but it is funded solely by the subscriptions of its member authorities.

Let me complete the picture by making two points. Local authorities have been and are scrupulous in funding the net costs of port health. I say “net costs” because although port health authorities can charge for a number of their services, such as the provision of health certificates for ships, by no means all their activities enable their costs to be recovered in that way, and, as I shall illustrate, the list of such activities is growing. Southampton port authority, in my city, provides an example. It covers: the container port, which is the second largest in the UK; the cruise ship terminals, which are the largest in the UK; general port bulk activity; the wharfs on the Itchen and Hamble; the military port in Marchwood; the oil terminals at Calshot; and Southampton airport. In short, the authority covers a complex of port areas and activities which are much more extensive than the area covered by Southampton city council and it undertakes nationally significant activity.

All that work—the activities of Southampton’s port health authority—is carried out at a gross cost per annum of £1.1 million and a net cost of some £300,000, and it is funded by the council tax payers of Southampton. Southampton’s port health authority has 13 staff, as well as administrative support, to cover all those duties and the movements in this vast port, and it is on duty 24 hours a day. It is very effective and very efficient, and it provides very good value for money. However, its duties continue to increase in scope and the new duties are mostly unfunded. So not only does the PHA not gain resources, but it has to cope with an ever-increasing work load with static resources.

An example of these new duties relates to regulation 669 from the European Union, which came into force on 20 January 2010. It deals with the inspection and, if necessary, the seizure of incoming non-animal foodstuffs, and all the new work that it involves is unfunded. Tony Baldock, the food quality inspector for Crawley borough council in Gatwick airport, is reported to have received a visit from EU inspectors last November and they expressed astonishment that no more resources were available to him to deal with the 2,600 extra consignments that he and his team were inspecting—indeed, this is true. In most other European countries the equivalent functions are resourced and undertaken on a national basis, but at Gatwick and other port health authorities all this work is done on the basis of existing and locally raised resources.

I mentioned the issue of aflatoxins in peanut imports. Aflatoxins are essentially a virulent fungus that can come into the country with peanut imports and it can cause liver failure if it is released into the general retail environment and infected nuts are consumed. It is essential that port health authorities carry out inspections for aflatoxins and, if necessary, prevent these imports from coming into this country, but no funding is provided for such inspections. Of course, port health authorities also carry out preparations and operations concerning emergencies such as the world avian flu virus, as well as inspections for radioactivity in food coming in from Japan, but no funding is provided for such work either.

The picture—I believe I am giving a fair picture—shows that even under conditions of extreme budgetary strain, local authorities are not sacking staff and making net funding reductions in port health authorities; they are acting very responsibly as far as their enforced local charges are concerned. However, there certainly are no new resources available to deal with new demands and requirements, and port health authorities, including Southampton’s, are operating increasingly stretched round-the-clock cover under progressively more difficult circumstances. That thin red line for all is being kept in place by efficiency savings, additional work rosters and responsible but difficult funding decisions being taken by local authorities in specific places.

In short, we face not an imminent catastrophe or collapse, but the skin being stretched tighter and tighter across the fabric of the service. For example, we face having future foot and mouth threats being dealt with by hand-to-mouth methods, and that is not ideal. This is not a recipe for all of us to sleep easy in our beds knowing that all will be well for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, as I have mentioned, because the funding and underwriting decisions are taken authority by authority, and locality by locality, no national co-ordination takes place, even when that would have obvious advantages—for example, a ship inspection database could help to avoid inspection duplication. The exception to that funding approach, as I have mentioned, is the APHA, which attempts to fill the breach with the few thousand pounds it gets in subscription from its member authorities. It is sometimes described as taking national action on corner-shop resources.

The problem with all this—at national level at least—is that the existence of all these duties and the degree to which they are overloading our present system is not recognised. Indeed, it is salutary to reflect that a recent report, the Rogers review of national enforcement priorities for local authorities, completely failed to notice or record the existence of port health authorities as a local authority function. Perhaps part of the issue is one of departmental responsibility and awareness. Does port health come under the Department of Health because of its public health implications, the Department for Communities and Local Government because of its locational and funding concerns, or perhaps the Department for Transport because it concerns ports and airports? That is not entirely clear in some circumstances and, perhaps for that reason, it falls between the cracks in the pavement.

If I have been able to bring to the attention of the House the existence and scope of, and difficulties facing, port health authorities, I hope I have achieved a little, but I believe we should be looking to move matters forward more urgently as far as port health is concerned. We should not proceed for the long-term future hoping that particular local authorities will be able to find the share of the funding not taken up by others. We must not cross our fingers and hope that, somehow, those officers in post now will exponentially absorb new duties and responsibilities so that our dinner tables and public health concerns can remain protected. I believe we should do more.

I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in his place to answer the debate, as I had been given to understand that it would be answered by the Department of Health. I am sure that he is equally delighted to be here and it is good that he will be able to reflect on the issues I have raised as far as the DCLG is concerned. Some might see this as an additional burden placed on some particular local authorities, whereby funding has to be found from within that area but goes towards activities that, I think we will agree, are nationally significant or at the very least regionally significant in their benefit and that are undertaken on behalf of us all.

We need at least to make allowance in the funding formula for the existence of port health alongside introducing mechanics to ensure that the load on local authorities is fairly shared to reflect the national importance of the function. That is a consideration for the DCLG. I cannot say I am completely optimistic that such a change in formula will immediately come about, but I would hope consideration of what it means to run a port health authority, the responsibilities on the shoulders of local authorities and the difficult circumstances that local government is in will be taken fully on board by the Department.

We also need recognition of the need for national support for public health co-ordination of port health at a national level, perhaps through providing support for the Association of Port Health Authorities to carry forward national co-ordination work. That is perhaps for the Department of Health to consider, and I hope that the Minister will convey those thoughts to his colleagues in that Department when the opportunity presents itself. Above all, I want port health to work to the best possible benefit of us all, not just for my city. It is incumbent on us all to think how best that can be secured.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) on securing the debate and raising this important issue, which straddles departmental boundaries, but I am happy to do my bit for the greater good and to shoulder the burden, as I was here anyway. I am much better informed, as is the House, thanks to his debate. I see the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in his place, and I have come across the issue as a London Member of Parliament in the context of Heathrow, but the hon. Member for Southampton, Test has usefully set the matter in a broader context.

Perhaps I can deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raises and consider whether there are ways forward. He is absolutely right: local authorities have the fundamental responsibility under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 for protecting the health of the population. Some of those public health functions are indeed discharged by port health authorities, which obviously have a particular focus in that regard. The 1984 Act provides for a port health authority to be formed either by a single local authority, as I think is the case in Southampton and in most of the cases that I looked at before the debate, or jointly by a number of authorities. To reflect local circumstances sensibly, there can be a joint board or other appropriate management arrangement.

Such arrangements are set up by a port health authority order made under the 1984 Act. Those orders are constituted by the Secretary of State for Health, but as the hon. Gentleman has observed, the funding issues tend to fall within the formula grant, which comes via the Department for Communities and Local Government, so that is where some of the overlap occurs.

Although the approach to port health authorities is the better part of 25 years or more old, it is well aligned with the Government’s localism agenda. It is permissive and local authorities have considerable discretion to come together, so it is bottom up in that sense, and there is flexibility for such orders to specify what functions port health authorities take on. Those functions can vary from place to place. The authorities are pretty fit for purpose for the current localist approach, so we would not necessarily want to change that arrangement.

As well as predominantly receiving funding from formula grant, port health authorities have the power to levy a precept in certain circumstances on the billing authorities in their areas. I understand that from the funds that they receive, they pay a small amount to their representative body. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to the Association of Port Health Authorities, because I am told that it has a good working relationship with the Department of Health. Officials in that Department keep in touch with the association’s officials, and I am told that they very much value that. In due course the Department will make proposals for consultation on updating regulations that relate specifically to international travel and the circumstances of port health. It is willing to discuss that with the representative body.

The Minister mentioned Heathrow airport, which is in my constituency. It is possibly the largest passenger port of entry in the country, but a large amount of cargo comes through it as well. I am grateful to him for mentioning that the regulations will be reviewed. I would be grateful if that was linked to a review of staffing levels and the required resources, because the regulations need to take account of the demands on resources, particularly at Heathrow.

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. Obviously, we need to consider what resources are required when we find out what the regulations require. I shall link that point to the one made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test about regulation 669. I will certainly ensure that my officials talk to officials at the Department of Health, and I will correspond with my opposite number there, so that such things are all considered together. There, too, is the opportunity to consider whether the burden is appropriately addressed in the current circumstances. So it is sensible to look at that in the round, as both hon. Gentlemen suggest.

In terms of the broader aspects of the funding, formula grant has so far been a tried and tested means of financing local authorities. There is also the ability to levy a precept, which will vary slightly according to the composition and responsibility of each port health authority. I know too, as I am sure the hon. Member for Southampton, Test does, that in certain circumstances there is a power for the authority to make a charge to recover the cost of providing a service to a user of the port, so there are some flexibilities.

In a broader context, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to consulting over the summer and taking forward a review of local government resourcing, which will include the operation of the business rates. Port authorities and port operations are often significant contributors to business rates within their areas and are important economic hubs. Of course, the outcome of that review might influence the approach that we adopt to formula grant as a whole. Formula grant started life as part of the business rate that was being recycled, but life has become rather more complicated than that in local government finance. However, the review gives us an opportunity to look holistically at the relationship with the grant. I cannot make promises about what the outcome of the review will be, but I can promise the hon. Gentleman that I can, as a result of this debate, take steps to ensure that the impact of any change on port health authorities is taken into account. I accept that many people might not realise their dependency on formula grant, and that this issue could fall between the ship and the quayside—that seems an appropriate analogy—but I would not want that to happen.

I hope that my comments have given the hon. Gentleman some indication that the Government are prepared to engage on this issue. We think that port health authorities fulfil a valuable role, and I pay tribute to their staff. He is right to say that they are on the front line, and they give a pretty cost-effective service.

It would not be worth living back in Hillingdon if I did not raise this point on behalf of the borough. In the review of wider business rates, it would be invaluable to assess not just the implications of the cost of the control of port health—particularly with regard to passengers, but also in relation to the import of goods—as well as the knock-on effects of having a port within a local authority area. I give as an example the role of health and social services in giving support when passengers who have particular needs arrive at Heathrow airport or another port. In addition, the local authority has to exercise a wider environmental health role for any goods that are brought into an area where a particular issue arises. That needs to be reflected in any future review of grants to local authorities and the use of business rates.

That is a fair point. I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments, which are on the record, and I will ensure that my officials take that point on board. It is worth remembering that although an element of national activity is undertaken, that does not automatically make it a national service in the strict sense. Some authorities, because of their differing constitutions and the different level of function, will probably be in a different position in terms of the impact of regulations and changes that affect them. A one-size-fits-all approach is therefore probably not appropriate, but there are things we could consider to make sure that all this is put into context.

Lest anyone who has not been following all this should be in any doubt about the variation in port authorities, let me make it clear that the term “ports” is to be read much more widely than some people might appreciate. Southampton is, unsurprisingly, a port authority, and Heathrow, in Hillingdon, is the largest of the port authorities, but Brent—that well-known coastal town—also has a port authority. I understand that is because a good deal of cargo interchange is dealt with there. The same applies to Trafford, which I suppose might have a footage on the Manchester ship canal; your constituency is closer to that area than mine, Mr Deputy Speaker. That serves to demonstrate the variety of operations covered by port authorities, and why there has to be some flexibility in the arrangements. I have done my best to address hon. Members’ concerns and I am very happy to ensure that we take this matter forward, either through correspondence or as is otherwise appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.