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Food-related Crime

Volume 810: debated on Monday 22 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the level of food-related crime, and (2) the resources available to address such crime.

My Lords, food crime is of rising importance to the public, our trade, our farmers and our climate. That is why the Food Standards Agency constituted the National Food Crime Unit in 2014; why the National Food Crime Unit published its assessment in September; and why Ministers have a dialogue with the NFCU, industry and the police about increasing its powers.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the National Food Crime Unit is operating against organised crime with its hands tied? Investigations are being hampered. Does the Minister agree that investigation powers should be strengthened to include powers to collect the necessary evidence to a higher standard? In other words, will the Government agree that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act powers should be granted to the National Food Crime Unit? The National Police Chiefs’ Council agrees to this to remove the burden from local police forces, which actually agree that food crime is not a high priority.

The noble Lord entirely has a point. I completely agree with him that the National Food Crime Unit has a formidable task ahead of it and that its investigatory powers could be enhanced and its impact improved. That is the view of the Government, industry and the police, and that is why we are committed to the dialogue, first suggested by the Kenworthy review, on the enhancement to which the noble Lord refers.

One of the food crimes I am told is increasing is that of stealing market-ready lambs. The people stealing them do not just load them on to a trailer and take them away—they butcher them in the fields and leave the debris, guts, blood and heads. I wonder whether the police have enough powers to deal with that particular crime, which is increasing.

The noble Baroness is entirely right: this is a very distressing crime. I was pleased to note the convictions and custodial sentences in March last year under Operation Stock, led by Northamptonshire Police, of three men for a string of such offences in the Midlands. The NFCU remains alert to the entry of meat from these offences into the food chain and works with policing rural crime networks to actively counter this practice.

My Lords, the better the NFCU does, the more cases will be reported to it. Could my noble friend tell me what the budget for the NFCU will be over the next three years? Could he also confirm, as the opportunity for reporting to the NFCU improves, whether there is enough anonymity for people, particularly those within the food business, to be able to make complaints without exposing themselves to retribution by criminal gangs?

My Lords, the NFCU’s head count is just over 80 staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and its budget is £5.7 million. The NFCU has an anonymous reporting route available via the phone and the FSA website, and it welcomes contact from public-spirited people within the industry on wrongdoing. The unit also encourages engagement with industry through more overt routes, and I particularly thank the Food Industry Intelligence Network, whose members share over 50,000 anonymised authenticity sampling results with the unit each year.

My Lords, in the 1970s I wrote a book based on a survey on the consequences of benefit withdrawal and found that, typically, claimants were driven to crime. Have Her Majesty’s Government undertaken any recent research into the consequences of the very low universal credit rates, the sanctions regime and the deductions taken from benefits to repay loans early on in the claim? If not, would the Minister be good enough to ask the DWP to undertake such research into the crime effects—if you like—of the benefits system?

My Lords, I bow to the noble Baroness’s great expertise on the correlation between poverty and crime. But that makes no excuse for the kind of crimes we are talking about here. Many are either brutal—as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to—or crimes of fraud, for which there is no excuse.

My Lords, I am encouraged by the Minister’s response today, and I am sure that many Members of the House will wish him well in persuading his colleagues to give more power to the NFCU. As he does so, will he ensure that the new system is integrated completely with the more established direct farm-related food regulations and crimes?

My Lords, the NFCU has done an enormous amount in working with stakeholders. Although it is a relatively small unit, with just 80 individuals, it works extremely closely with trading standards officers in local authorities and with policing authorities up and down the country. It leverages its expertise, and we hope to be able to augment that expertise with investigatory powers so that it can relieve police forces from some of the application of justice in this area.

My Lords, a steady supply of nutritious food is essential, not only for those recovering from Covid but for those who are struggling due to losing their job or having been furloughed. Queues at food banks are extensive. Food crime is very serious, so can the Minister provide assurance that it will not affect the supply of food to those who are most in need?

My Lords, the focus of the unit tends to be on either food that is unfit for human consumption, such as in the horsemeat scandal of 2013, which the noble Baroness will remember, or on the passing off of low-quality food with a higher-quality label. It is not involved in addressing the theft of food. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that getting good-quality food to all the population is a priority, and that is one of the Government’s priorities.

My Lords, I applaud the work of the National Food Crime Unit. The main function of the Food Standards Agency is food safety and surveillance. We are currently in the midst of a salmonella outbreak through the import of chicken nuggets from Poland. Does my noble friend share my concern that this raises serious issues about the food safety and surveillance system and why this outbreak was perhaps not detected during the import of this meat into the UK?

My Lords, I am across the recent outbreak of chicken nugget salmonella poisoning across the UK. However, I point to the work of the European distribution fraud unit, which is very much focused on this kind of cross-border food crime. I will take back to the department the noble Baroness’s recommendation and will write to her if there is any update that I can provide her with.

I will be very quick because I am very keen that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is able to get in on this Question. Can the Minister commit to briefing parliamentary counsel to advise and bring forward these changes, and when can that happen? We on these Benches would welcome this commitment and would give appropriate support to the resulting legislative process.

I am enormously grateful to the noble Baroness for her support in this matter. I reassure her that we are focused and working on it, and I will bring forward an update as soon as I reasonably can.

My Lords, detecting food crime often depends on trading standards officers and public analysts. Does the Minister consider that the current number of trading standards officers and public analysts is adequate to give the public confidence that food crime is being detected in a timely and comprehensive way? Could he also tell us what progress has been made on detecting honey fraud? It is estimated that about 15% of honey on sale in Europe is adulterated, and it is now over a year since Defra held a seminar on detection methods.

The noble Lord undoubtedly knows that, since January 2021, the FSA has been running a 12-month pilot of the new model of working with local authorities on trading standards in order to improve the work between the FSA and trading standards to address any gaps there may be in that collaboration. On the noble Lord’s question about honey fraud, I completely endorse his shock and outrage that the honey that we buy in the supermarket may be adulterated. It is sometimes said that there is 10 times the amount of manuka honey on sale than could ever be possibly made by the bees of New Zealand. There are challenges on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy allocations, as the noble Lord undoubtedly knows. We are working extremely hard with both Defra and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist to put pressure on international authorities to align the data needed in order to investigate honey more closely.

Sitting suspended.