EU Imports and Exports: Food and Agricultural Products - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 3:17 pm on 2 May 2024.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 3:17, 2 May 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the checks on imports and exports of food and agricultural products to and from the European Union, and in particular with regard to the import controls introduced on 30 April.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this timely debate and look forward to hearing contributions from other noble Lords. I welcome my noble friend the Minister to his place and look forward to his response.

The purpose of the debate is to evaluate the extent to which that elusive level playing field of parity of access to imports and exports on both sides of the English Channel and the North Sea has been achieved. I will look at border controls in the round, and in particular developments this week. I seek to assure parity of treatment across UK ports, whether goods are coming into Dover, Hull, Grimsby, Immingham or Holyhead, and between the UK and EU ports. This week the Government introduced the second phase of controls on EU imports, following the health requirement certificates in January this year. I congratulate all involved on achieving this—the Government, the ports, the importers and the traders. These are important measures of food safety and food security.

Will the Government review the operation and effectiveness of the border control posts and the new parallel border IT process, particularly for entry via Dover, before the next stage is introduced in October this year? Will they commit to treating the short straits as one entity to ensure that the critical supply chain of food imports functions well and for supermarket shelves to remain full—a point made by the Dover Harbour Board in its consultation response? Many of the controls introduced this week would have been pre-empted by a phytosanitary agreement with the EU. I seek to explore whether we are any closer to achieving such an agreement.

The risk levels and frequency of controls appear to be greater for those exporting from the UK to the EU than those entering the UK. It begs the question whether it is inherently unfair and unequal that it is easier for imports to enter the UK than for UK food and agricultural exports to enter the EU.

Is it still the case that there are no border control posts in the EU to permit the export of UK breeding stock? In effect, this means that there is a trading embargo on the export of live animals for breeding purposes to the EU mainland that damages UK livestock production. Are we seeking to help British farmers to access what remains their largest export market, namely the EU? These measures were promised to assist farmers to meet these challenges, as set out in the Agriculture Act.

The Food Standards Agency welcomes the measures introduced this week yet remains concerned about the continued threat of personal imports of animals, plants and foods, as well as potential food fraud. How do the Government intend to address this threat—a concern shared by farmers and the NFU, which notes that the danger of potentially infected meat entering through personal imports remains? What resources will be made available, particularly to address the risk through personal imports?

We are heavily dependent in this process on the availability of environmental health officers and trading standards officers to oversee the safety of our meat and other food products. They play a vital role in protecting against diseased plants and infected animals entering the UK.

The Food Standards Agency notes that when we talk about border controls and the BTOM, we are referring to commodities imported commercially through regular trade routes. The BTOM and associated controls are not targeted at illegal imports of food that are typically brought into the UK posing as personal imports or where goods are passed off as something that they are not—I remember the horsemeat scandal at this point. Illegal imports of food are targeted at ports of entry, with Border Force the main agency responsible, supported by port health authorities, and this will not change with the BTOM. I pay tribute to the FSA’s National Food Crime Unit, which targets organised food crime by taking action to disrupt the impact of criminal networks in this area.

The figures for imports into the UK speak for themselves and demonstrate a huge imbalance in trade. In 2023 the UK exported 167,000 tonnes of poultry meat to the EU with a value of nearly £225 million; the UK imported 673,000 tonnes of poultry meat from the EU with a value of £3 billion. To clarify, it is £225 million in exports versus £3 billion in imports—that is quite an imbalance. The absence of a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement in this regard is regrettable.

The CLA briefed me ahead of the debate on what increased costs the new border controls brought in this week will bring. That is to be expected because although food exports to the EU have stabilised, the costs associated with exporting have increased substantially. As a result of increased paperwork, through the need for health certificates, an increase in vet checks and the use of customs agents, costs have increased by £170 million since 2019. In 2023 export costs for food products increased by £58 million. Increased costs for exporters lead to a reduction in export volumes and, regrettably, a reduction in the number of businesses exporting to the EU.

The aim of the Government since the UK left the EU in 2021 has been to implement the target border operating model, which means that checks on certain products entering the country from the EU have now been introduced. The NFU states that the EU continues to be the UK’s largest market for live animals and agri-food exports, accounting for 67.9%, valued at £10.7 billion, in 2023 alone.

A breakdown in biosecurity is one of the most serious threats that we face as a nation and I am pleased that the Government are addressing this through these controls. However, it should not be easier for EU producers to export to the UK than it is for UK producers to export to the EU.

I will address the issue of perishable products such as plants, flowers, fruit, vegetables and fish. As time is of the essence, can my noble friend give the House an assurance that checks will be timely and effective to control just-in-time delivery, mindful of the nature of these deliveries in terms of transport and packaging?

In conclusion, I will briefly address a number of questions to my noble friend. In welcoming the measures introduced this week, in addition to those that were introduced in January and those expected in October, we need to take a wider view of the progress being made towards achieving a phytosanitary agreement with the EU and on border posts opening in the EU to facilitate UK exports, particularly of breeding stock. I understand that a review was scheduled for April this year, with products such as composites and some fruit and vegetables classified as low risk. Have the Government undertaken such a review? Will they undertake to do so and communicate any changes to industry with a sufficient lead time of, say, six months?

The border checks introduced this week will go some way to equalising the level of checks, which have hitherto seen an asymmetrical application of the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. They are therefore to be welcomed. Some known unknowns, such as the cost ratios for controls at various ports of inspection, need to be addressed. Will the Government use the opportunity of next year’s review of the trade and co-operation agreement to re-evaluate the level and cost of checks in the flow of trade between the UK and the EU?

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 3:27, 2 May 2024

My Lords, this is a wretched affair and, I will argue, an unnecessary one. A mass of our businesses are unable to plan because they simply do not know what the compliance requirements or timescale of the new system of import controls will be. They know only that the bureaucratic burdens and costs will be onerous, especially for SMEs, to the point that not a few will go out of business.

I was talking to a florist friend, who told me that there is already an extra 24-hour lead time for orders. The price that he has to pay for lisianthus, for example, has almost trebled and everything imported from Europe has gone up. He foresees only the rich being able to give flowers. The dead hand of this Government is even withering romance—an outcome that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, surely desires no more than I do, or perhaps even the Minister secretly does. People running delicatessens, importing from niche suppliers in the EU, are already unable to replenish their shelves. Why are the Government killing off small businesses? Why are they exacerbating food inflation?

Can the Minister tell us why the Government consider that they have to inflict this policy on us at all? I can imagine three possible reasons, none of which seems to me convincing or satisfactory. Maybe they have been persuaded by vets and our own food producers that, without a great apparatus of import controls, we are vulnerable to animal and plant disease, and food fraud. To this I say that, while we were in the single market, we were entirely comfortable to rely on EU-level sanitary and phytosanitary controls. Why should we not continue to rely on them? Or maybe the Government have been railroaded by our domestic agricultural lobby arguing that it is not fair that there are strict controls on UK exports to the EU and no equivalent controls on our imports from the EU. To this I say that raising the cost of imports is bad for consumers and their interests should come first.

The third argument I can imagine is that the Government are nervous that if we do not control imports from the EU in the same way as we control imports from other trading partners, we could be deemed to be giving the EU unjustified preferential treatment and thereby be in breach of World Trade Organization rules. I am not persuaded by that argument, either. If the Government really believed that, they would have imposed the full range of import controls to match the EU’s on 1 January 2021, the day the EU applied its third-country customs and regulatory regime to goods imported from the UK. But they did not, and they have proceeded at a most leisurely pace.

The UK could have made a strong case that preferential treatment for EU imports was justifiable. Our trading relationship with Europe is special, by virtue of centuries of history, geographical proximity and inextricable entanglement. If we remind ourselves of the foundational principles of the WTO, we see that we did not have to conclude that there was a need to introduce new import controls. Our response to the most favoured nation principle of trade without discrimination could have been to reduce trade barriers for the other countries against whose imports we have obstacles in place. That would be a great thing for us to do for the developing world, particularly given the reduction in our aid budget and the amount of it that has now been diverted by the Government to footing their bill for asylum seekers. The WTO states that it is opposed to the raising of trade barriers. Just because the EU has put up protectionist shutters, we did not have to do the same.

It is a shame to have taken all this trouble to come out of the EU only to saddle ourselves gratuitously with a whole lot of new bureaucracy and constraints on trade.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Liberal Democrat 3:32, 2 May 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for initiating this debate today; it is incredibly topical. The only problem with being quite so topical is that it is so close to the start date that it is quite difficult to see what exactly will happen in the next few days. It is only a couple of weeks since we had the debate on the report from the House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee, which I had the pleasure of chairing. The major concern raised with that committee by people in the industry, and going on certain information from Defra, was that the whole system was going to crash from the first day, and that does not seem to be happening so far.

At this point, I take the unusual step of not being highly critical of the Government but welcoming the hard work of the Minister and the Defra team, who are often criticised even though they undertake a great deal of hard work on this. I congratulate them on bringing about a scheme that so far seems to work, although, from my discussions, the administrative burden is hard and snagging is still going across. I make myself a hostage to fortune by making that statement if it crashes tomorrow.

However, I will now get back to normal and start criticising the Government again. There are a lot of concerns about the new controls and their implications, especially for those in the horticultural community, given the financial and administrative burden of the new checks and considering that so many of those companies are small. They will have a really adverse effect on their ability to conduct business.

I start by regretting the need for these controls in the first place, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. As a strong remainer—indeed, I personally would advocate for rejoining the EU as soon as possible—it is hard not to see the real damage being done to the UK economy by these trade barriers, especially to individual sectors, with horticulture being particularly hard hit at the moment. I believe that there is a majority in the country today who would happily re-enter the EU—the Minister might not agree with that but I think a referendum would be really interesting, and perhaps we should have another one. The real issue is that our leaving the EU has led to enormously high costs for business, by the creation of those barriers. I do not think this Government will do it, because of the ideology of the Conservative Party, but I hope that the next Government will start a new chapter with the European Union, by introducing an SPS regime that would help the entire sector. I am sure that Europe itself would welcome such a move. However, that is perhaps a debate for another day.

I should move on to another four points. The first is the issue raised by Logistics UK and others around the potential for considerable delays for trucks, especially those not first off the boat. A real problem is not just the issue of our produce spending long periods of time waiting to be processed but the hours spent by the truck drivers themselves waiting to get the produce processed. There was an example given that some truck drivers might have to wait 10 hours. Of course, if you are a haulage company, that is a really difficult issue to deal with, considering that that truck driver then might be working 10 to 20 hours in the day. There is a shortage of truck drivers, and haulage companies are working on razor-thin margins. This could have a real implication, not too far in the distance, of a shortage of truck drivers, and therefore a shortage of trucks.

My second point is around costs. We now finally have the charges coming in at £29 per commodity and £10 for low-risk produce, but there is a real issue here. Although the Government have said that this is an acceptable cost, 81% of businesses, especially SMEs, have said that this will really hit them. One issue that must be raised is this: the projections that the Government put forward of 0.2% do not match up to the recent work done by Allianz, which suggested a cost of £2 billion, and a survey by ITV, which put the cost at £2.9 billion.

I have run out of time, but I am really looking forward to seeing how this goes forward. Will the Minister come forward with a Statement about the scheme, on a set date within the next three or four weeks, because not much has been talked about the scheme as it is so late coming forward?

Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench 3:38, 2 May 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on securing this debate, and declare my interests as a veterinary surgeon and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare.

The introduction of these risk-based checks on imported medium-risk and high-risk animal and plant products from the EU is to be welcomed. As noble Lords might imagine, I will focus particularly on the import of animal products. These checks simply create parity with imports from all other third-party countries, and parity with the checks that the EU carries out on our exports to it in the absence of a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. In that respect, it creates a level playing field for our farmers, and should help rebalance, to some extent, a very distorted trade balance, to which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has already referred. In spite of that, as she also mentioned, the EU remains the UK’s biggest market for agri-food exports.

Apart from fairness, the real importance of these checks is biosecurity. These checks, particularly the physical checks, in a risk-based approach, will reduce the risk of importing to the UK infectious diseases in plants, animals and indeed humans. Since imports from the EU constitute such a large proportion of all the food products of animal origin imported into the UK—80% of all the animal-origin foods in 2022—it is critical that the EU is included in biosecurity checks. Despite the relative sophistication of EU animal disease control and surveillance, a number of animal pathogens occur in continental Europe that we want to exclude from the UK animal population. There are also potential public health threats that we want to exclude from food.

Delays in introducing these checks—there have been five since they were announced in 2021—have, historically, created a vulnerability in our UK biosecurity. During that period we have seen, for example, an outbreak of disease in over 200 people in the UK caused by salmonella, likely to have been imported in frozen poultry products from Poland. The new checks should prevent such issues and, much more importantly, reduce the likelihood of major outbreaks of infectious disease in the UK, such as African swine fever, a highly fatal disease of pigs that is spreading westward in continental Europe and can infect a wildlife reservoir—the wild boar. The UK Government estimate that an outbreak of African swine fever in the UK would cost £570 million-odd per annum. Since we import nearly 1 million tonnes of pigmeat every year, mainly from the EU, and the African swine fever virus will persist for many weeks in pig products, African swine fever poses a potent threat to the UK pig population.

With regard to the new checks, I note there is to be a reduction in physical and identity checks on medium-risk products from the rest of the world. This is of some concern, particularly with regard to diseases of global distribution, such as foot and mouth, the outbreak of which in the UK in 2001 cost £8 billion, which equates to £12.8 billion in 2022 prices. Will the Minister assure the House that this will not increase our vulnerability to globally distributed epidemic diseases such as foot and mouth? I should add that an epidemic of infectious disease in UK animals would not just cause colossal direct losses in animal welfare, our farming economy and food security, but lead to international trade restrictions on our global exports, which rely on our freedom from disease status.

Of course, as has been mentioned, there are costs to the implementation of these controls. Logistical challenges include the time-critical nature of some imports, particularly plant products. Furthermore, despite the Government assuring us that the impact on food and drink businesses will be only 0.2% over three years, other organisations predict larger costs and impacts, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mentioned. However, in the context of the vast costs of epidemic disease control and eradication, and in the absence of an SPS agreement with the EU, the costs of these checks to industry, and ultimately to the consumer, are relatively small. I suggest they should be viewed as an insurance premium to reduce the likelihood of much greater potential losses, which could affect animal and human health, and the whole UK economy.

Photo of Lord de Clifford Lord de Clifford Crossbench 3:43, 2 May 2024

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for bringing this topic to the Chamber. I draw attention to my entry in the register, as I work for a veterinary practice.

The veterinary industry and some in the farming industry welcome the introduction of these controls and the increase in the number of inspections on imports of plant and animal products. In January, in the debate on biosecurity tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, I raised the issue of African swine fever, which the noble Lord just mentioned again. In September 2023, there was an outbreak of African swine fever in wild boar in Sweden, many hundreds of miles away from any previous outbreak. The source was unknown. After the debate, a statement on Defra’s website stated that the source of the infection was found to be infected meat in a rubbish dump, found at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Some vets in the pig sector have concluded that this devastating disease for pigs will reach the UK at some point in the near future. The most likely source of this infection will be contaminated meat, just like the outbreak in Sweden. There is real concern and high uncertainty within the sector regarding the changes made this week. With the launch of the second stage of the border target operating model on Tuesday, I hope we will see an increase in the number of physical inspections on medium-risk animal and plant products and high-risk foods at some of the newly established border control posts, such as Sevington. These inspections are welcome, as they will improve the country’s biosecurity if importers comply, or attempt to comply, with these regulations.

With the move of the border control to Sevington, 22 miles from the Port of Dover, there could now be fewer physical inspections at the Port of Dover, so individuals intending to bring illegal or possibly infected meat products into the country and to ignore the regulations will be less likely to be intercepted. The possibility of fewer inspections in Dover has been reinforced by Defra reducing the funding of Dover Port Health Authority by £2.1 million this year. Last weekend, Dover Port Health Authority seized 3.4 tonnes of illegal meat products, the largest haul this year, taking seizures since the new ASF control measures came into force in September 2022 to 85 tonnes. A National Pig Association spokesman said:

“The situation is concerning because, as of the end of April, there is still no clear indication of how Defra intends to tackle the problem of illegal meat imports, which, of course, pose a huge threat to the UK pig industry”.

The National Farmers’ Union has also raised concerns about this.

What plans does Defra have to ensure that the number of random inspections at the Port of Dover does not fall in the coming months? Secondly, what measures does Border Force have in place to track vehicles that are required to stop at Sevington? What actions and resources are in place to track vehicles that should have stopped but do not? Which agency will handle the tracking of these vehicles and the seizing of imported goods? As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked, when will we have a review of this scheme before the implementation of the next stage?

Finally, will the Minister update the House on whether there have been any further negotiations with the EU regarding the opening of border control posts in our nearest European neighbours? If border controls could be reopened, that could enable the export of high-quality breeding livestock to recommence. It has ceased since we left the EU, other than by a very long journey via the Republic of Ireland. It would give farmers an opportunity to trade their highly bred animals, benefit from the investments they have made in their herds and maximise their income.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:48, 2 May 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for securing this debate. I am going to focus my comments on the second part of her question on the border target operating model. In part, that is because on Tuesday morning, purely by chance, as the model was going into operation, I was joining an official from the Horticultural Trade Association on a visit to Rochford nursery in Hatfield, so I heard live, first-hand reports that were coming in from the environmental horticultural sector about what was happening as the controls came into place. I should declare that I was making that visit as part of my fellowship with the Industry and Parliament Trust.

One of the things I was hearing that morning was that many companies had pre-ordered to make sure they beat the deadline or had delayed orders for a couple of weeks. Is the Minister aware of just how much the Government are putting into operation now? Many companies in the horticultural sector, and I have no doubt in the broader sector as well, have ensured that there is a much slower flow now, but it is going to ramp up over coming weeks. Are the Government ready for that ramp up?

I also heard that, even before the model officially came into operation, there had been considerable confusion with the paperwork. If customs agents ticked the wrong box, they were being precharged for the inspections before the inspections had actually started. More than that, the cost of the inspection was being charged to the customs agents, when it should have been charged to the companies. They were then going to add 10% to those charges as a handling charge. That gets to the complexity that small and medium-sized enterprises in particular are facing when dealing with this.

I shall focus primarily on the environmental horticultural sector, which is vital to greening our urban areas, expanding our agroforestry and generally contributing to public health. More than 90% of our tree and plant growers, members of the HTA, import plant products. Many of those are plug plants, some of which I was shown during my visit. They are tiny and extremely prone to drying out, but I am told that the warehouse in Sevington, and the other warehouses, have no temperature controls. Sometimes the plants are moved in temperature-controlled trucks but, if they are held up at a border control post, they can quickly die and become worthless.

There are other issues in terms of handling. Members of the HTA have been told that there is only forklift handling in the warehouses, so the warehouses can handle only palletised loads. Some of the plants being imported, certainly the higher-value ones, are too large to go on pallets, which are carefully packed into lorries by expert packers at the European end, and to unpack and repack them is an extremely skilled job. There was a general feeling that the Government were just going to have to ignore those loads because they do not have the capacity to deal with them, but obviously that is a biosecurity risk.

I have a question for the Minister, although I understand if he needs to write on this matter. The information that I received was that, if a lorry is directed to go to Sevington for an inspection and it simply does not go, at the moment no one knows what the penalty is. No one knows what will happen if the driver confuses their instructions or does not follow them. What happens then? There seems to be a total blank on that in the industry—which is a bit of a hole, given that the whole process has started.

I shall pick up on points made by the noble Lords, Lord Trees and Lord de Clifford, about biosecurity, particularly in the animal area. We are in a situation where there is now significant concern in the US about H5N1, a highly pathogenic avian influenza that is now widespread in cattle herds and has been detected in one in five samples of US milk. Just this week, the US started testing beef to see what incidence it finds. My understanding—I am relying on a report in the Telegraph here—is that a special unit has been established in Defra to look into this issue, but there are no plans to test milk, beef or cattle in the UK. I have to ask the Minister, especially in the context of biosecurity that we are talking about, why we are not taking the obvious precautionary approach of doing that testing. I echo the remarks made by both noble Lords that any reduction in tests or inspections, particularly of animal products, is a grave concern.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench 3:53, 2 May 2024

My Lords, ensuring that essential food items reach shelves without delay has significant implications for our economy and food security, yet the potential for disruption due to increased border checks, leading potentially to shortages of essential food and agricultural products, is real. New checks, procedures on imports and exports, the impact of import controls, supply-chain disruptions, the maintenance of food safety standards, staffing capacity, the level of collaboration between UK and EU authorities and the impact on farmers and producers mean that long-term solutions on both sides of the Channel are imperative. The challenge, particularly for SMEs, is adapting the regulations and required targeted support measures to navigate the complexities to ensure their continued competitiveness.

With time not on our side this afternoon, but in wishing to establish whether the Government’s approach is on track and addressing the many issues before us, I have this week taken the liberty to place 12 far-ranging Questions for Written Answer that I hope will clarify all, possibly beyond the response from the Minister this afternoon. External observers may care to note that they range from HL4184 to HL4189 and HL4250 to HL4255.

I will not replicate the many points that have been drawn attention to. However, I have been in discussion over the past two years with Enigio, an advanced tech company from Sweden, on its solution for creating fraud-safe digital original documents. In declaring that I have nothing to declare, but building on the provisions of the Electronic Trade Documents Act, its software is used to create documents, and then documentary checks can be performed in such a way that any type of fraud and/or manual mistake is detected and prevented, with a process of both electronic and paper documents that will fully meet security requirements. Its digital trace original, with next-generation PDF, will be the fastest way to universal digitalisation with interoperability built in. This can play a crucial role in the readiness of our border infrastructure and staffing to handle the increase in import controls and prevent disruptions in the supply chain.

I instigated yesterday the formation of a politically balanced fresh produce network APPG which Sir John Hayes, a senior Lincolnshire Member of Parliament who fully understands the issues, has agreed to chair, supported by colleagues from both Houses. The Minister may wish to be informed that I am also hosting fresh produce producers and associated industries in this House on 21 May. He would be most welcome to join the discussion, in order that participants can hear directly from the powers that be on what discourse has taken place with EU counterparts; and with what outcomes to ensure the upholding and integrity of our shared food market, working together to ensure a resilient, efficient and sustainable environment that serves all our peoples.

While these are all important questions, involving faraway states such as Poland—its national television station questioned me yesterday on the many issues covered in this debate, and I note the reference made to Poland just now—I could not conclude, however, without placing credit where credit is due. I have been drawn into this subject over time due to the persistence of Tammy Dawson-Doughty of the UK Fresh Produce Network, which recognises the state of play and ongoing consequences of where we now find ourselves. She has agreed to perform the secretariat role of the APPG with the ukFPN, encouraging a collaborative relationship for positive solutions—and be counselled, Minister: she was world junior martial arts champion, to boot.

Photo of The Bishop of Lincoln The Bishop of Lincoln Bishop 3:57, 2 May 2024

My Lords, I am grateful for this time to say two things about Lincolnshire. One is that 24% of jobs there depend on the food chain, so are deeply impacted by our import and export arrangements. One of the things that has been brought to my attention is that the Grimsby Fish Dock receives its fish from Iceland over the weekend, for auction and distribution on Monday and Tuesday. Will there be enough environmental health officers on duty over the weekend to ensure that these auctions and distribution can take place under these new rules?

Secondly, on food security and the protection of animal species in particular, I was recently in a pig unit in Lincolnshire which is almost carbon zero in how its waste is turned into power and dry fertiliser, and where the pigs have decent enrichment. This business is undermined by not only this tough security but cheap imports relying on carbon prodigality. I would be keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:59, 2 May 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for introducing this debate, and I thank everyone who has taken part. I declare my interest as set out in the register as president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

As we have heard, it is important to the UK economy to ensure that we maintain efficient trading with the EU. We have heard about the introduction of these important checks on sanitary and phytosanitary imports that have come in just this week. It is important to have controls that are effective, biosecure and efficient. The contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Trees, about the importance of the checks in stopping future outbreaks of disease in the UK was incredibly important. He particularly mentioned African swine fever, as did the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford. We strongly support his request to the Minister for assurances on these matters. If we are to bring measures in, they have to work effectively, because we have heard a number of concerns.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, talked about the short straits and the goods that enter through the Channel Tunnel or the Port of Dover. They will face a common user charge of £29. Our concern is that this will be imposed by Defra per consignment to recoup the operating costs of the border facilities. Compare that with the French system, which requires payment only on consignments from the UK which are selected for SPS checks. We are worried that this charge will have a significant and disproportionate impact on perishable goods coming in through the short straits, because it effectively adds a levy on to all food and plant imports that come in via this route. I ask the Minister: is this fair on our producers and our businesses? The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked this question as well.

I also mention Getlink, which manages and operates the Channel Tunnel, and thank its staff for meeting with me and for their briefing. Getlink is concerned because some of its customers have said that they intend to stop trading with the UK due to increased costs, or will have to pass on the full costs to consumers. Yet the Government are apparently saying that the new measures will increase food inflation by only 0.2% over three years. Why has the Cabinet Office not published the modelling behind this figure? The FSB, customs professionals and different businesses have all warned that there will be higher costs and a bigger increase than this Government forecast.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, talked about the impact on small businesses, particularly horticulture. A number of examples have been in the media recently. The owner of a flower company, Tom Brown Wholesale, predicts that his business will face costs of between £200,000 and £225,000 per year. He warns that his prices will have to go up for consumers. He was also concerned about how the checks will take place, on the basis that the products have already been checked in Holland. Defra says that it will use a light-touch approach. I ask the Minister exactly what this means. Can he explain what “light-touch” is all about? My noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport spoke of the need for more clarification on some of these issues. The Fresh Produce Consortium says that the Government have

“single-handedly created the world’s most inefficient and expensive border”.

I wonder if the Minister agrees.

The consortium said that it has heard that inspection staff would not be at border controls after 7 pm, despite 95% of goods arriving later than that. Is that correct? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln asked about staffing in Grimsby. What impact could this have on queues or processing time if the people are not there when they are needed to inspect the goods?

The EFRA Select Committee has also expressed concerns about reported delays due to checks as well. The British Meat Processors Association said that there has not been enough clear explanation about the new checks, so it is difficult to look at the impact. The British Poultry Council said that there has been a 56% drop in poultry meat exports since 2020 and the system will erode business viability and push up production costs in the UK. These are all very legitimate concerns.

Photo of Lord Douglas-Miller Lord Douglas-Miller The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:04, 2 May 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, for securing this important debate, and all those who have spoken for their thoughtful and constructive comments. There have been a great number of questions and I have a very short period of time to address them, so I will push on and see how many I can get through. I will of course write to those whose detailed questions I do not manage to answer.

The second phase of the border target operating model was implemented on 30 April, reflecting a long period of intensive work across government. I am pleased to report to the House a smooth and successful implementation. I am also extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his continued support. All the necessary digital systems have been deployed and the documentary and physical checks have begun successfully at the points of entry across the country. Defra will, of course, continue to monitor the BTOM’s impact and effectiveness on a very regular basis.

Contrary to the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Redesdale, and in support of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, I say that introducing these biosecurity controls on imports is very important. Now that we have moved away from the EU’s rigid biosecurity surveillance and reporting system, we are responsible for protecting our own biosecurity from threats such as African swine fever and Xylella. These threats would devastate UK industries and cause significant damage to the environment, public health and the wider economy. We remember the impact in 2001 of foot and mouth, which cost British business nearly £13 billion in 2022 prices and of course caused massive disruption to many industries, as well as emotional and financial distress to many of our farmers.

Biosecurity controls are also essential to protect our exports and international trading interests. Our trading partners want to be reassured that we maintain the highest biosecurity standards. The overall ambition of the border target operating model is to introduce robust risk-based controls that protect biosecurity while reducing administrative and cost burdens for importers.

I will take this opportunity to address some of the questions raised. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked about the Government’s assessment of our readiness to implement these controls. The Government have worked with port and airport operators, traders, port health authorities and the Animal and Plant Health Agency to make sure that we have the right infrastructure, systems and resources in place. In recent months, this has culminated in an intensive period of operational testing and collaboration with several ports, port health authorities, APHA and traders. We have used these tests to identify and resolve any remaining operational issues.

We are confident that BCP infrastructure has sufficient capacity and capability to handle the volume of checks expected under border control operating models. This was raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, and I hope that satisfies him. I should add that the port health authorities’ staffing is designed to be very much in line with demand. We are confident that our systems are robust, dynamic and effective, and we are confident that inspection authorities are appropriately staffed and trained. This is reflected in the successful first few days of implementation.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, spoke of the impact of border controls on domestic food producers, and I am confident that the border target operating model will strike the right balance between safeguarding biosecurity and reducing friction on trade. The National Farmers’ Union has welcomed the new regime and its protection of our biosecurity. These checks are also vital for maintaining access to export markets by assuring our trading partners of our high biosecurity standards.

I turn to some questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and again support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on the comparative regulatory advantages enjoyed by EU businesses exporting to Great Britain. Although the focus of the border target operating model is on imports, I note that it substantially reduces the asymmetry in the regulatory burden between GB-EU and EU-GB trade. It introduces new controls on animal and plant products imported from the EU, ensuring that they meet our high biosecurity standards.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and others questioned the assessment made by the Government of the impact of these controls on business. We have been clear from the outset that, in developing this new model, we aim to achieve the lowest regulatory obligation for businesses, consistent with the need to protect biosecurity and to safeguard the UK’s reputation for high regulatory standards. I believe that this is what we have achieved. All costs and operational procedures will be kept under review and, if they appear either disproportionate or excessive in other ways, we can and will alter them.

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke on the impact that these controls will have on inflation. Indeed, it was a point raised by other noble Lords as well. For consumers, the implementation of the BTOM should have minimal impact on food price inflation. Initial analysis—I take the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, made about where that information comes from and whether it can be published; I will write to her on that—is based on peer-reviewed methodology and has indicated that the policies introduced under BTOM will lead to an approximate increase in consumer price inflation of less than 0.2 percentage points over a three-year period.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, seemed to suggest that the Government are refusing to talk to the Dover Port Health Authority. I can assure him that nothing could be further from the truth. We have been engaged in dialogue with the Dover Port Health Authority for a number of months now. The current funding package that it enjoys was put in place to cover a range of tasks that are now moving to Sevington. We are looking to negotiate a new package with the Dover Port Health Authority to reflect the reduced number of checks that it has been doing over a wide range of issues. This does not mean that we will be reducing checks for African swine fever. To be clear, the authority that is responsible for stopping and checking for illegal imports is Border Force, not the port health authority.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked how the Government intended to enforce the attendance of goods called to Sevington for a BCP check. Consignments called to Sevington for inspection will have completed the necessary customs declarations and pre-notifications. These goods will not be legally cleared for sale or use within the UK until they have been attended to and cleared prior to BCP. Where the BCP has concerns due to non-attendance, the goods will be referred for inland controls by the local authority, enforceable through the data collected through those customs declarations and pre-notifications.

Another point raised by a number of noble Lords was around horticulture. The Government are most grateful to the HTA, which has provided extensive and constructive feedback during the development of this model. Indeed, I have held a number of meetings and round tables with the chairman, chief executive and quite a number of its members. Officials in Defra and the Cabinet Office have worked closely with the HTA and a number of its members on operational tests of systems and the BCPs of most significance to their sector. This has allowed government and BCP operators to refine systems and processes to ensure that the new regulatory system works smoothly for this sector.

This brings me on to another point that was raised by a number of noble Lords about the pragmatic approach that we are taking. When you are introducing an entirely new system—I am very aware; I have been in business and know how this works—it is good practice on day one to go quite slowly. That is entirely what we have attempted to achieve here. My clear instruction to all the port health authorities is that we do not want to go from nought to 100 miles an hour on day one. We have targets in terms of the quantity of products per risk category that we want to check. We can build up to that; we do not need to go from nothing to everything on day one. I hope that that pragmatic approach is very much a part of the successful start that we have seen to this process.

I am very conscious of the time, so I will pause there and again thank all those involved in today’s debate. It has been extremely helpful and valuable. If I have missed any points, I will ensure that I write to noble Lords.