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Food Imports and Exports

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 21 January 2021

What steps he has taken to prevent disruption to food (a) imports and (b) exports since the end of the transition period. (911162)

What steps he has taken to prevent disruption to food (a) imports and (b) exports since the end of the transition period. (911181)

We have engaged extensively with industry to support trader readiness for new requirements for exporting to the EU. For those importing to the UK, we established a phased approach to border controls for the first period of 2021. We have supported exporters as they familiarise themselves with new processes around export health certificates and customs declarations, and we have liaised closely with EU states, such as France, that are also getting used to new processes at the border. Finally, we have worked closely with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure the rapid deployment of the covid-19 testing measures required by France.

Further to that, may I ask the Secretary of State what measures the Government are taking to prevent more border disruption and costly delays for food and drink exporters when the volumes of trade start to pick up again in the coming weeks? What assessment has he made of the impact on jobs if there are delays and disruption at the border?

The sector that has had greatest difficulty in these first few weeks has been the fishing sector, principally because it is a very time-critical, perishable product, but there are also some smaller businesses selling smaller consignments in mixed, grouped loads. Overall, the system is working well. We are issuing around 150 export health certificates per day. The volume of lorries through the short straits is back up to around 6,000 to 7,000 per day—still some way short of normal levels, but nevertheless it continues to grow.

Dina Foods, which produces delicacies in Acton for supermarkets here and all over the EU, rejoiced at the Christmas eve miracle of no tariffs and no quotas, but it is drowning in paperwork for forward freight and it is experiencing crippling additional transportation costs and pallet requirements, and border delays for customs clearance. Goods loaded for Spain on the 8th still have not made it. Buyers are losing patience. The same is happening for those importing from everywhere; what took two weeks now takes three months. Will Ministers fix the rules of origin to stop battering British business?

Colleagues in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are looking at the specific issue around rules of origin, which does affect some sectors, but overall, flow at the border through the short straits has been good. More than 6,000 lorries per day are travelling. DFDS, which leads on fisheries distribution, now says that it is getting lorries to Boulogne within 24 hours. Goods are starting to flow, but unavoidably, as we leave both the customs union and the single market, there is of course some additional paperwork.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work that he has put into getting the deal to work. We welcome the deal, but there are still lots of problems with people getting things through the border, and delays are reducing the value of fish especially. What compensation can be given to people, and what more can the Secretary of State do to get goods flowing through the borders—both at our end and, in particular, through French ports when there are problems at their customs?

Yesterday, we announced that we would offer one-to-one support for individual enterprises in the fishing sector that are struggling to get used to the new paperwork; that could be from HMRC or the Animal and Plant Health Agency. In addition, we work very closely with customs officials and Border Force officials in France to help improve the understanding at that level. We also announced a £23 million fund yesterday to help those fishing businesses that have struggled in these initial weeks.

I fear the Secretary of State is living in a parallel universe. He must have seen the headlines: “Pig Heads Are Rotting In Rotterdam As Brexit Delays Hit The British Meat Industry”. Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association understands that these problems are not teething problems; they are structural. He warns that the meat industry’s trade with the EU is in jeopardy. Is he right about that? What is the Secretary of State going to do about it—just suggest that farmers do something else?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. Actually, goods are flowing, particularly lamb, which is our principal meat export. Dairy goods are also flowing. Yes, there are occasionally delays at the border, as border officials in France and the Netherlands get used to the new processes, but we are intervening in all such instances to help the businesses concerned.

Europe’s biggest fish market in Peterhead is empty. An industry has collapsed because this Government’s ideological blinkers meant they made a mess of the negotiations and Ministers think it is a teething problem or a paperwork problem or it is not their fault. Will Ministers tell us how they intend to sort this out? Will the Government go back to the EU to seek a grace period and new negotiations on market access, as many in the sector are asking for, even if that means accepting some regulatory alignment?