Checks on Goods Entering UK

– in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 29 April 2024.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 4:13, 29 April 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on the introduction of checks on goods entering the UK under the border target operating model due to be live on 30 April 2024.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Under the border target operating model, tomorrow the Government are introducing documentary and risk-based identity and physical checks on medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin imported from the EU. Checks on high-risk products, currently conducted at destination, are moving from destination to border control posts and control points. Recent media reports suggesting that the introduction of these controls will be delayed are incorrect.

Documentary checks will happen at all risk levels. Physical checks will initially focus on the highest-risk goods, with some also taking place on medium-risk commodities. We will build up to full check rates to both protect biosecurity and minimise disruption. We will continually review our enforcement approach as we track compliance and trade flow, and will adjust our approach accordingly. This pragmatic approach will support traders as they adjust to the new regime.

The Government have worked closely with industry, inspection agencies and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, known as APHA, to ensure we are ready for the introduction of these controls. We are confident that border control post infrastructure has sufficient capacity and capability to handle the volume of checks expected under the border target operating model. We are confident that our systems are robust, dynamic and effective, and that the inspection authorities are appropriately staffed and trained.

I close by emphasising that the introduction of these biosecurity controls is not optional. Now that we have moved away from the EU’s rigid biosecurity surveillance and reporting systems, we are responsible for protecting our own biosecurity against threats such as African swine fever.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Let us start by saying this is not about Brexit because, whether Members supported or opposed Brexit, nothing proposed here is inevitable or unavoidable. Having left the EU, we need border controls, but what is proposed will not be controlled—it will be chaos.

The EU brought in checks in 2021, but this Government have delayed doing that five times. In that time, they could have negotiated a sanitary and phytosanitary deal to avoid the mess that is about to happen. Instead, from Wednesday, for the first time, 2.7 million lorries will need to be stopped at Dover so their contents can be checked, and another 4 million will require a health certificate for the animal products they carry. On top of that, 5 million of them will have to pay a common user charge for the privilege of importing goods deemed medium or high risk, whether or not they are inspected. The costs to business, which we know will be passed on to consumers, are horrendous and chaotic, and the charges were confirmed only on 18 April.

The Government have admitted that the checks will cause inflation, but they claim it is only £300 million—0.2%—over three years. Independent analysis shows it will be 10 times that amount, or £8 a month on the average food shop. If the Minister wants to dispute that figure, will he finally publish the modelling that the Government have refused to disclose so we can see how they have come to their numbers? We know their numbers are wrong because, while they have confirmed that the common user charge—the direct cost to each lorry—will be about £145 a time, they admit they have not calculated how much the new veterinary checks will cost, with some running to hundreds of pounds. They cannot make those calculations because they told European countries to set their own standards and charges, so how can Ministers tell us we can be confident when we do not know what will be passed to be healthy in Hungary, Germany or here?

If food standards matter to people, they will be disappointed because the Minister has just admitted that only “some” checks will happen on medium-risk goods from Wednesday. Will he put a number on how many checks will happen from Wednesday? Medium-risk goods are anything of animal origin that are not alive, but could also be beetroot or sweetcorn. What a mess.

Small businesses are going to be clobbered for a fee for a service they will not even get. On top of that, Sevington has not even been declared a border control post to carry out any of the checks. Where will goods coming into Dover be checked on Wednesday, especially if they are high risk? What about the other ports around the UK that can set their own charges? And who is going to enforce any of this? The Government told industry to be prepared, but there will not be any checks after 7 pm, so people can say goodbye to those just-in-time supply chains for perishable goods. People coming back from holiday have no idea what their “personal use” is, so they could be stopped for carrying gorgonzola.

With 36 hours to go, we need some straight answers. Our constituents cannot eat the paperwork or afford the price rises these checks will create. Corner shops, delis and restaurants will go bust and our ports will be bunged up. I say to the Minister that there is still time to cancel the Brexit border tax, so will he please listen to concerns from across the House and do so?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady either chooses not to understand what is happening, or deliberately tries to inflame a situation that will be of great benefit to the UK moving forward. She deliberately picked the highest figure available. For low-risk goods, there is a £10 charge for products, capped at a maximum of five products, so the maximum amount that can be charged on a lorry load of low-risk goods would be £50.

The hon. Lady is right that we have calculated that over three years that will lead to an additional 0.2% on food inflation. In comparison, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease cost this country £12 billion, not taking into account the impact on international trade and our reputation as a country, so these checks are a small price to pay for ensuring we are safe and protected for phytosanitary and sanitary goods coming into the UK.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Obviously, as part of the European Union and the single market, we could not impose checks to ensure that diseases such as African swine fever did not come into the country. The Minister has said that there will be a graduated approach to the introduction of the checks. What is the timescale for ramping them up to a level that he believes will be satisfactory? If consignments are diverted to Sevington, what measures will be in place to ensure that those trucks or vans actually arrive at Sevington and people do not dump what is on board in a layby or transfer it to another vehicle?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for the scrutiny that his Select Committee has undertaken.

It is important to distinguish between those goods that come into the country through approved routes, via approved importers on traditional lines, and those people who may seek to import goods into the UK illegally or without that documentation. There will still be border control checks by Border Force at the port of Dover to catch those who are trying to do something illegal, but those who are operating within the system will move to Sevington. To stop halfway and avoid those checks would be a criminal act and those goods would not be able to be sold within the UK marketplace.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We recognise the need to ensure the UK’s biosecurity, but I echo the points made by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy. What a mess. It is 29 April and the new checks are being introduced tomorrow, but the businesses involved are unclear about how the system is supposed to operate—and that is after the five delays that we have heard about and huge sums wasted on border control points. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much has been wasted on Portsmouth, for instance.

We want these checks to work. I have been to the London and the Dover port health authorities and been extremely impressed by the work that they do, but it is baffling that, in the battle against Asian swine flu, at Dover, the Minister is taking away vital funding, as the Government move the checks 22 miles up the road to Sevington. Can he tell the House how food vehicles will be controlled on that journey, as Dover Port Health Authority tells me clearly that they won’t?

The Government have admitted that the cost will be an extra £330 million annually. Others say it will be more. What definitive figures can the Minister provide for the inflationary impact that this Government’s border measures will create for food supplies in the UK? What assessment has been made of the savings and efficiency that would be made if we were to achieve a better veterinary agreement with the EU?

In conclusion, the British chambers of commerce says that DEFRA has failed to listen to industry over these changes. Others say the same. Many businesses are exasperated by the endless delays and the repeated and continual lack of clarity and certainty in the implementation of the new system. Why have the Government left businesses and even border chiefs in a position where they simply cannot plan properly and are left in the dark, as one put it, at one minute to midnight in terms of being told about the essential features of the new system? What is the Minister going to do to sort out the mess?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the shadow Minister for his questions and his interest in this topic. What is clear is that there is a distinction between those goods that are coming into the country illegally, which will still be inspected at the port of Dover by Border Force, and those that are coming in via legitimate routes, by legitimate trade links, from areas that have been inspected by their own country’s equivalent of the Food Standards Agency to make sure that those port goods are safe to come into the UK with the correct documentation. Those goods will go to Sevington. But if someone tries to do something illegal, they will be picked up by Border Force at the port of Dover, via inspection, including intelligence-led inspection. [Interruption.] The shadow Minister says that there is no money, but we are in conversation with Port of Dover to resolve that.

The other challenge that the shadow Minister put to us was that we have delayed this a number of times. That has happened because we have been in conversation with those people and hauliers who have had comments on how to improve the system. We have listened to those concerns and now have the model that will operate, given the advice and liaison we have had with those companies.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

As a veterinary surgeon, I am passionate about biosecurity. I am reassured that our Conservative Government are taking this matter very seriously indeed. I thank the Animal and Plant Health Agency and everyone at our borders who do so much in this regard. Prior to leaving the EU, we did not have the opportunity systematically to check animal and plant products coming into the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we now have the opportunity to strengthen our biosecurity and that the introduction of the border target operator model will protect animal, plant and, ultimately, human health in the UK moving forward?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area and his expertise in it. Moving forward, we will be in a much stronger place in terms of our phytosanitary and sanitary protections. That is the right outcome. We will continue to ensure that we are safe in the UK and that we protect our borders proportionately.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member)

The continual uncertainty being caused by these border checks is not only disgraceful but highly damaging for industry and consumers. There have been five delays by the UK Government, accompanied by a complete failure to communicate those delays effectively. Does the Minister accept that the significant disruption being faced is a symptom of not only the Government’s disastrous delivery of the checks but Brexit itself? Any suggestion to the contrary is frankly for the birds. Secondly, will he apologise from the Dispatch Box to the businesses that have been diligently preparing for the changes, only to be left utterly in the dark by his Government?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman’s characterisation is simply untrue. We have been working closely with the sector, with hauliers, and with companies that want to import food into the UK. We are approaching this in a pragmatic, proportionate way. We have taken our time to get it right. I do not apologise for taking time to ensure that the system that we will introduce tomorrow is proportionate and pragmatic. We have listened to the companies that will use the systems to ensure that we get it right and it works. We are ramping this up at a pace that is slow but steady to ensure that we get to the right place in the right time, to keep the country safe from any disease.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

My right hon. Friend makes the point that there have been delays, and he makes no apology for them. Given those delays, will he accept my assurance, since Sevington is in my constituency, that the team working there, whom I have spoken to about this in great detail, are absolutely prepared and well trained to do the checks as well as they could possibly be done? People can be assured of the safety of import checks at Sevington, because the team there are absolutely across everything that needs to be done.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and the reassurance that he gives the House. We will continue to listen, and to work with those who want to import goods into the UK, to ensure that we remove as many barriers to the operation of free trade as possible, but at the same time keep ourselves safe.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Committee, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment, Chair, Business and Trade Sub-Committee on National Security and Investment

Our trade intensity has fallen to the lowest level in the G7, and ITV’s Joel Hills has stated that the estimated costs of the new model are 10 times the Government’s estimate. I hope that the Department will publish its detailed workings soon, but surely the bottom line is that the cost of living crisis has not gone away, and the Minister is basically introducing a system that will cost UK consumers more to check on imports coming from the EU to standards that are exactly the same as the UK’s, and which of course meet EU standards in the first place. Does he seriously think that voters will forgive him?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right hon. Gentleman says that there will be extensive costs. As I said, for low-risk products they are £10 per product, limited to a maximum of five products per common health entry document. That means that the costs are reasonable. We calculate that there will be a 0.2% increase in cost over three years. He says that these goods are coming from within the EU under the same regulations. African swine fever is moving across Europe. It is already present in Italy. Were that disease to get to the UK, it would be devastating for the UK pork market and the UK pig population. It would also damage our ability to export pork products around the world if we lost our credibility as being free from African swine fever.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

The Minister is absolutely right about the devastating impact of not having proper checks and the risk of African swine fever, so can he explain why Dover Port Health is having its costs slashed for essential checks at the border? Will he accept that the existing checks should be maintained in full at Dover Port Health; that Dover port of is the right authority, with its state-of-the-art facility, to do these important checks, in respect of which it is the most experienced body across the entire channel; and that we should not risk having these checks at some new, untested, supposedly trained facility 22 miles away in Ashford? That is a risk to this country.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s tenacious campaign on behalf of her constituents and the port of Dover, but I hope she will not mind my drawing attention to the fact that these are separate regimes: goods coming in legally, via legal channels, with the right documentation will move to Sevington, but the port of Dover is the right place for Border Force to ensure that we are protected from illegal imports, and those checks will still take place. The conversations with the Port of Dover over funding continue, and we want to see Port of Dover continue to help to keep us safe and intercept any illegal imports that people may attempt to bring into the UK.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Those of us from rural communities, particularly those like mine in Cumbria that had to live through the horror of the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, know how vital it is to have biosecurity at our borders—but intelligently applied, so that we do not damage supply chains and have excessive red tape. Does this issue not shine a spotlight on the fact that we are now, sadly, increasingly reliant on food imports? Britain produces only 60% of the food we eat. Does that not remind us that the Government’s agricultural payments scheme, which actively disincentivises the production of food on good-quality, productive agricultural land, is extremely foolish and should be reversed if we are serious about our security as a country?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am familiar with the beauty of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency; as he knows, I was there on Saturday with the shadow Minister. He gives the figures for what we import in total, but for the food we can produce we are at 72%. The Prime Minister has also recognised that challenge, and we will introduce a food security index so that we can monitor this issue, to make sure that the Government’s policies do drive farmers to increase their productivity and their production. I have full confidence in the ability of our farmers to continue to produce top-quality British food, to continue to expand their productivity and to keep the country well fed.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk

These changes are required under World Trade Organisation rules and are about keeping us safe from disease threats, but in practical terms, how will it work for mixed loads in particular, to reduce the cost to business and therefore to consumers?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend asks an important question. That is why we have capped the maximum charges to five per load, particularly to support SMEs. As I say, for those of medium risk the charge is £10, or a maximum of £50 per load. That cap is specifically aimed at helping and supporting SMEs that are importing food into the UK.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Creative Industries and Digital)

What do the Government have against the £6.2 billion floristry industry in this country, which employs 240,000 people—seven times as many dentists as we have in this country? Many of them work in small family businesses on very small margins. Why did the Government do absolutely no impact assessment when they increased the costs for those bringing in chrysanthemums, dianthus, solidago, orchids and gypsophila to £500 and introduced severe delays on products that need to be at market by 9 o’clock in the morning? Weddings, funerals, Mothers’ day and Valentine’s day—is there any family event that will not feel the dead hand of this Government?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight how important that sector is to the UK economy; that is why we want to protect those growing flowers here in the UK from any diseases that may be imported via products that have not come through the right channels with the right documentation. We want to keep the growing sector in the UK safe from any of those diseases; that is why we are introducing these checks.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The border operating model will not apply on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; those trade routes are exempt. However, given the record of dodgy products being manufactured in the Irish Republic and brought through Northern Ireland to GB, can the Minister give an assurance that, should that route be used either by Republic of Ireland producers or other EU producers, he will not be installing checks on Northern Ireland to GB trade, which is so important to the Northern Ireland food industry and economy?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Of course, we recognise the importance of the Northern Ireland economy, and we want to ensure that Northern Ireland feels part of the United Kingdom. We will do everything we can to limit any impact. As the right hon. Gentleman identifies, there is currently no timescale for the introduction of the way in which we will monitor and work with those who are moving goods across from that part of the United Kingdom. We want to ensure that that does not become a back-door route, and we will continue to have conversations with the authorities in that part of the world.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

On the subject of back-door routes, can my right hon. Friend tell us when the border control points for the Welsh ports that connect to the EU through the Republic of Ireland will be operational?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I cannot give my right hon. Friend a date at this moment in time, but we are in detailed conversations—particularly with those at the port of Holyhead, which is an important UK port—and as soon as we have a date, I will update him from the Dispatch Box.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

The Minister says that this policy will benefit Britain, but the Centre for Economic Performance says that our food prices are already 30% higher because of Brexit, and independent analysis shows that the Government’s approach will cost another £2.9 billion. Why is he ignoring British business estimates on this issue and hitting British customers with another Tory tax at this difficult time?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from my previous answers, we are working hard to ensure that we keep UK food producers free from plant and animal diseases. That is why we are introducing these checks in a proportionate way that does not impact on business, it is why we have limited the amount of charges that can be introduced to five per lorryload, it is why we have ensured that those fees are set at only £10 for medium-risk products, and it is why we will continue to work with industry to ensure that we have a proportionate approach that does not take cash away from businesses and only recovers the cost of keeping us safe as a country.

Photo of Gen Kitchen Gen Kitchen Labour, Wellingborough

Why have the Government refused to implement a tonnage-based approach, as the EU does, which would support small and medium-sized importers, particularly in Wellingborough? Not doing so risks putting them out of business. To avoid that, will the Minister adopt measures such as ensuring that all small and medium-sized importers can join the trusted trader scheme?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We did look at different models. Of course, we could have adopted the model of third country to the EU, but that would have created significant cost for those wishing to import food across the channel. We also looked at adopting the EU’s model, which, again, would have cost way more than the model that we are introducing. The model that we are rolling out tomorrow is the best and most pragmatic model that we have been able to develop through working with and listening to the advice of those in the sector.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

Food prices are 30% higher than they were three years ago, and independent estimates reckon that new border checks are equivalent to adding a 10% tariff to imports. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that border checks will have on living standards in Welsh households, in which one in every four adults has been skipping meals to make ends meet?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Actually, on increased food prices in Wales, the biggest danger is taking 20% of land away from Welsh farmers and out of production and imposing a top-down approach to those farmers. I hope that the right hon. Lady will rethink her support for the Welsh Government’s disastrous proposals, which will drive thousands and thousands of people out of Welsh agriculture.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

As a direct result of all these changes, small businesses will close, jobs will be lost and consumer choice will be reduced. That is the exact opposite of what Brexit was supposed to achieve, is it not?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. This is a pragmatic approach to keeping the country safe from animal and plant diseases while allowing the free flow of trade via a model in which people can get certification away from the ports to ensure that they can import products, and stamping down on those who want to act illegally.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Obviously, these controls will introduce additional logistical steps, which are problematic for time-critical products. I recently met people from Maincrop Potatoes Ltd in my constituency. It trades potatoes to producers, so it has a deadline to hit on those production lines, and it will be importing more this year because of the disastrous potato harvest. Can the Minister provide any reassurance that that process will be streamlined enough to enable that business to continue to move its goods around in a timely way?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. What the hon. Lady has described is exactly what we want to try to achieve: making sure that trade, particularly in goods such as potatoes, flows across the channel as freely as possible, but that we protect ourselves from diseases such as brown rot that could be devastating to the UK’s potato production.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Could the Minister set out the Government’s current policy towards a comprehensive UK-EU veterinary agreement, and what negotiations—if any—are happening in that regard? That would surely be a huge win for consumers and producers right across the UK, and would have the added bonus of further reducing the level of checks required on agrifood movements across the Irish sea.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not think that if we were to reach that agreement, it would include veterinary medicines, but of course we continue to have conversations with our friends in the EU to remove as many barriers as possible. We have a strong interest in making sure that the farmers and vets in Northern Ireland continue to get adequate supplies of medicine, and we will work with our friends in the EU to unblock as many of those barriers as possible.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

My understanding is that the Minister was opposed to Brexit in 2016, and I presume one of the reasons for that is that he opposes red tape. Do this measure and others not indicate that, as feared, Brexit is turning into the biggest chapter of red tape in UK economic history?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am a strong believer in democracy. The Brexit debate was one that was settled by the great British public. They voted to leave the European Union, and now I want to embrace the opportunities that that brings for the UK. As a Government, we will continue to work tirelessly to make sure that we make Brexit work for the UK and seize those opportunities that come our way.