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Exiting the European Union (Animals)

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021

I beg to move,

That the Trade and Official Controls (Transitional Arrangements for Prior Notifications) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 429), dated 30 March 2021, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31 March, be approved.

It is a great pleasure to be here and to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. This instrument makes urgent and necessary amendments to EU exit legislation concerning border controls to extend the exemption period for the import requirements for plants, animals and their products coming into Great Britain from the EU. Now that we have left the EU, we are bringing in measures to apply the same risk-based biosecurity controls regime to the EU as that which we have for the rest of the world. In our exit regulations, we set out a transitional period for the introduction of controls on EU sanitary and phytosanitary imports. The reason for changing the timescale in the statutory instrument today is simply that we recognise the effects of the pandemic and the effects it continues to have on the business community. Phasing the introduction of controls in a sensible way prioritises flow at the border and is designed to minimise disruption to international trade. The original start date in the regulations was 1 April 2021. That date was announced last June. When the regulations were drafted in the autumn of 2020, we were simply not clear about how disruptive the pandemic would continue to be to all of us and to our business communities, both here and in the EU, over the winter.

On 11 March 2021, the XO Cabinet Committee agreed that we should extend the introduction of checks because of the pandemic. The change to the timetable will enable businesses to familiarise themselves with the new SPS requirements and to bring in new IT systems. It will allow them to do further work on the necessary infrastructure and processes at border control posts. We will in due course introduce a further instrument to reset the later phases of import controls and get the right dates there, too.

As a whole, these regulations will ensure that we can continue to deliver robust, effective controls and checks on all food, animal and plant imports. The devolved Administrations have given their consent for these regulations to apply to the whole of Great Britain, and we also remain fully committed to WTO rules and, of course, to our international trade obligations. This instrument ensures that legislation to maintain our UK biosecurity will continue to function in GB, taking into account the full and unforeseen impacts of dealing nationally and internationally with the pandemic. With this legislation, we will continue to deliver an effective import system that guarantees high standards of food and animal safety while ensuring frictionless trading and movements. I commend these regulations to the House.

Well, here we are again, perhaps unsurprisingly, with yet more statutory instruments needed to correct the entirely foreseeable problems created by the Prime Minister’s rushed job over Christmas, the consequences of which I fear will be with us for some time. Let me start by saying that we will not be opposing this SI. It has, after all, been in effect for nearly a month, and we acknowledge that it had to be done, because quite simply, the processes that needed to be in place, whether physical or information technology, were not there. The Government simply were not ready, so now they have come back asking for more time —well, not really asking, but telling—even though they promised in early discussions that they would be ready.

I am sure the Minister remembers, in introducing SI 2020/1631 on 20 January, saying:

“ From July this year, we will have controls in place for all imports of EU SPS goods.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 20 January 2021; c. 4.]

Today, the Government tell us that we will not have such controls, in most situations, until next year. They cannot say that they were not warned; I had previously warned them about this. The following week, in a debate on another of our sequence of SIs, 2020/1661, I said:

“My fear is that there will be a lot of bridging in the months and years ahead”.—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 25 January 2021; c. 5.]

And here we are, exactly as predicted. Going back to that first discussion on 20 January, I recall pressing the Minister quite directly on the potential for delay, and particularly on the likelihood of border control posts being ready. I am sure she remembers. She told us:

“The Animal and Plant Health Agency tells us that the building is progressing and it is confident that they can be ready by July.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 20 January 2021; c. 8.]

I entirely understand the problems of the coronavirus epidemic, but this was at a time when I think we could have been aware of the potential problems.

It is therefore reasonable for us to be slightly sceptical about the current promises from DEFRA in response to a query from the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, to which I am sure we are all very grateful. The Committee was told by the Department that it expected the

“infrastructure to be ready as required to deliver each of the revised phases of increased SPS checks in October 2021, January 2022, and March 2022.”

Well, let us hope so, but I have to say that the saga of the row over the border control posts in Portsmouth bodes ill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for his campaigning to get a fair deal for Portsmouth on this issue.

Sadly, it is not just the physical buildings that are late. The Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also rightly queried the readiness of the IT systems. It was told by DEFRA that the import of products, animals, food and feed system—IPAFFS—is working for imports and that the Department

“continues the development of the new exports IT system (formal name to be confirmed in due course).”

As a former IT person, that did not fill me with confidence. I suspect that staff trying to deal with these things may have a few suggestions for names for the aforesaid system.

Even more alarmingly, the Department cites working with a small group of used agricultural farm machinery exporters to develop the system. That is an important sector, but I am not sure that it is entirely typical. The Minister may have seen the recent story in Farmers Weekly about an East Sussex machinery dealer who has stopped shipping abroad because of what he describes as the “lunacy” involved in obtaining the plant health certificates required since the UK left the European Union. Let us hope that the team working on the computer system and their colleagues can make things work more smoothly for him and others. Will both the physical border control posts and the necessary IT systems be ready this time, or will we be back here again having yet another discussion on further extensions?

Although at first the SI looks deceptively simple, making a few date changes, there is more to it than that. A much longer transition period has consequences, and as businesses change their practices to adapt, there may be real costs and risks. Can the Minister tell me what analysis has been made of the potential for smugglers and fraudsters to take advantage of the lack of checks for an even longer period? Frankly, it is an open door. It has even been suggested to me that goods coming into the EU bound for the UK are being waved through because it is no longer of consequence to the EU. If we are not checking either, who knows what is actually coming in? What safeguards are there?

While extending the time kicks the problem further down the road, what progress is the Minister making on encouraging the EU to be ready in time, to ensure that the imports we need will be able to flow smoothly? We are well aware of the problems that UK producers have encountered with exports into the EU—the extra costs for export health certificates, the pressure on availability of vets and the problems with groupage. It is highly likely that the same problems will occur the other way, with European suppliers perhaps having less pressure to get things in place, being able to turn to other European markets. How is the Minister using the extra time secured by this SI to ensure that the problems we may have been facing in a few weeks are not just put off for a few more months?

Given that we may still face problems with supply, can the Minister explain why the Food Resilience Industry Forum has been shut down? A member of the forum quoted recently in The Grocer says:

“Government has kicked the can down the road with various grace periods which will come to an end, and at that point there will be a greater need than ever for the industry to come together with Defra. It’s short-sighted of the government to be cutting these meetings short.”

They are spot on. That is the consequence of this statutory instrument. Can the Minister explain why this decision was taken and what the Government have got against working with the food sector to keep food supplies secure?

The SI changes some dates, but there are wider consequences. After difficulties at the border for British food exporters, with meat left rotting in lorries and the fishing industry thrown into chaos, the Government have now been forced to delay import checks on goods coming in from the EU to allow businesses and port authorities more time to prepare. The Government have left themselves with no alternative but to continue to allow check-free imports for many more months, but it did not have to be this way.

Instead of sticking their head in the sand, the Government could have worked with industry to get ready. They could have focused on practical action to support businesses—measures such as recruiting and training the 50,000-plus customs agents we knew were needed to help with checks. Instead of delivering a limited deal at the last possible minute, they could have rolled their sleeves up and gained more for our country around the negotiating table. Due to the Government’s last-minute scramble to extend the deadline on import checks, this legislation had to be made so hastily that it has been left incomplete. As I think the Minister confirmed, yet more SIs will inevitably be needed to implement fully the planned timetable for import checks.

Labour has a very different vision for a post-Brexit Britain. We want businesses to thrive and for the gaps in the deal that are piling up paperwork and red tape to be properly addressed. We want an end to these stopgaps and real engagement with our European neighbours, to ensure that our complex and interrelated food systems can operate effectively and efficiently and not be undermined by Government incompetence, which risks disadvantaging UK producers.

Representing Dover as I do, I am delighted that we left the European Union at the end of last year, and that we have a new relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. That new relationship has brought with it an opportunity for us to make progress on issues that matter to us on which we have been held back by the EU, including animal welfare and food standards, to which I know the Minister is personally very committed. I welcome the Government’s commitment to banning live animal exports for fattening and slaughter. It is a disgusting practice that has been driven from Dover. I look forward to the legislation later this year, so that it can never return.

Except for the Christmas shenanigans by the French, the post-Brexit traffic plans have operated well. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), and the Secretary of State for Transport for their hard work to keep Dover clear. However, four months after leaving the EU and six months after it was announced, the planned new border facility for Dover at the White Cliffs site is still waiting for the go-ahead. The site is designated to support the new DEFRA checking regime for animals, food and plant health, of which today’s regulations form an important part.

Last year, after extensive consideration of all available local sites, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary confirmed that the White Cliffs site was the only viable solution. The site has been six months in development since it was chosen and will bring millions of pounds of local investment, hundreds of jobs, a local employment strategy and so much more besides, but it will also take time to build.

The other local border control site is at Ashford, and it was not delivered on time. It is also close to road-bearing capacity—what it alone can support from the tens of thousands of trucks that pass through the border. Will the Minister take steps to support more urgent progress on the White Cliffs site following the purdah period for the current local elections? The White Cliffs site needs to be confirmed and started promptly so that it is ready to carry out the Department’s new inspection regime.

In addition to delays on the border sites, there have been significant delays in other post-Brexit implementation, including the arrangements for physical border control changes required as part of the Le Touquet juxtaposed controls in the port of Dover itself. Order at the border is vital for trade and prosperity, security and biosecurity. Strong borders make for good trading neighbours. It is therefore important that the timetables and action for strong and effective border controls do not slip further.

Lessons from France, which is already undertaking animal checks, show that they are more complicated in practice than was originally anticipated. I am aware that channel operators have been supporting the roll-out of these new requirements—for example, with language and other support. The UK responded fantastically in standing up multilingual facilities at short notice to assist with border preparations for transition day. These are the sorts of practical facilities that we need in place very shortly to support the changes for checking animals, foods and plants.

In addition to border controls, there are legal frameworks that need completion—for example, around border health control responsibilities. Dover District Council is the competent authority for the purposes of border health checks for both Eurotunnel and the port of Dover, yet it and nearby Ashford Borough Council are awaiting the legal framework to underpin the split of responsibilities between them for the new border control arrangements. Although the authorities work collaboratively and effectively together, it is an unsatisfactory position. Will the Minister’s Department look into this as a matter of urgency?

From time to time, there is disruption at the port. It can be caused by national security or terrorism-related issues, strikes, weather or, more recently, unilateral border closure or other activity by the French. In recent weeks, we have seen the standing down of the emergency traffic framework at Manston and the Operation Brock moveable barrier. However, there is no new framework for permanent additional lorry parks or alternative emergency provision for this next stage post transition.

We have seen at first hand the devastation to the fish and farming industries when problems occur at the border, with fish and seafood rotting in traffic queues and concerns for animal welfare, as well as for drivers.

The port of Dover is the busiest and most successful port of its type in the country. In an ordinary year, the port of Dover deals with £122 billion-worth of trade, about a fifth of the whole of the UK trade in goods, transiting 4.5 million vehicles and 11 million passengers. Daily, that is up to 10,000 freight vehicles and up to 90,000 passengers.

The importance of the short straits route is unquestionable, as is the need to get the border facilities for such a busy and vital route for our nation up and running swiftly. That is why I urge the Minister to ensure that the additional border facilities needed to manage the biosecurity trade and enhanced animal welfare provision at the White Cliffs site are confirmed and delivered at pace, together with effective road management schemes that keep Dover clear and keep animals, plants and food moving freely through the channel ports.

Here we are again, coming up to five years since that referendum in which England decided to take us out of the EU, and still those behind that hare-brained scheme cannot settle on what needs to be done. There has been a veritable catalogue of failures along the way, passing by the truly awful performances in negotiations, the collapse of exporting industries in the early part of this year—teething problems, the Minister said—and the truly appalling way in which EU citizens have been treated by this Tory Government.

So here we are once again spending time on regulations to facilitate Brexit. How long have we spent having to discuss, adjust, finesse and rehash regulations for what was supposed to be the easiest trade deal in history? Today, we are kicking the import regulations down the road a little and I am sure that we will be back later to sort something else out and something else after that.

The SNP will not oppose these regulations today; they are necessary to keep the food on supermarket shelves here, because the Government failed to plan for Brexit. It is almost as if they did not understand what was coming, because the provisions for running a sensible import system are as lacking as this Government’s provisions for running a sensible export system. I have no doubt that Brexit will continue to harm businesses the length and breadth of the UK: small exporters are being crushed; farmers are feeling the pressure; and fisher folk are watching their communities being placed under huge strain. In the meantime, UK Ministers will be trumpeting the great achievement of signing trade deals with countries in various parts of the world—trade deals that will have no measurable impact on GDP or the economy here.

Scotland will soon be out of this Union and we will leave behind those who would cause self-damage for the sake of some forlorn idea of sovereign superiority, and I have to say that I am impatient to see that day.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, as it always is to speak in the Chamber whenever the occasion arises. I thank hon. Members who have contributed to the debate so far. I spoke to the Minister beforehand, so I think that she has an idea of where I am coming from. Hopefully, she will be able to give me some idea about what we can do.

The explanatory notes say:

“The regulations are made in exercise of the powers conferred by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 in order to address failures of retained EU law to operate effectively and other deficiencies (in particular under section 8(2)(d)) arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) is in her place. She is our spokesperson on Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs issues, so she will know only too well what I am about to say. The legislation has created chaos for the movement of animals from the UK to Northern Ireland and from Northern Ireland to the UK. The Minister can be under no illusion as to the questions that I will raise today. Why is this extension needed at all? Why have the discussions not enabled things to run smoothly, as promised? Most pertinently, why has Northern Ireland been—I use this word deliberately—abandoned yet again? To use a term that we use many times in this House, this SI will not cut the mustard with those in Northern Ireland who are unable to purchase dog food, to bring their dog to the UK mainland for a staycation and to be and feel part of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Over the past months, my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann and I have been contacted by literally hundreds of constituents who travel—some weekly, some monthly—to dog shows and events both on the UK mainland and in Northern Ireland. They were okay doing it before 31 December 2020, but they were unable to do it in the same way on 1 January 2021. The cost for each journey has basically meant that show-dog owners have had their leisure and, for some, their jobs changed forever. The cost to attend a show or event across the water has sometimes added £200 to the cost of a journey. Many, although not all, the people involved are of a pensionable age and the cost was horrendous for them. It basically meant that they were not able to do it. It has changed their leisure activities forever.

I am not sure whether the Minister knows about this incredible case. Back in February time, four ponies were coming over from the mainland but were detained in custody at the port for five weeks, while my constituents in Ballygowan were unable to get their ponies for their children. It really was quite incredible.

My hon. Friend is making the valid point that it is the Northern Ireland protocol that is causing these difficulties. Does he agree that the Government need to realise that the protocol needs to go so that such ludicrous situations and the distress caused to the animals and owners can be avoided?

I certainly do; indeed, I wish to make that very point in the conclusion of my contribution. How ludicrous was it? There were four ponies for two ladies in Ballygowan in my constituency of Strangford, but they found that the presents for their children—the ponies—could not be delivered not only before the birthday but for five weeks afterwards. Just last weekend, those four ponies made the great escape and managed to get out of EU custody and make it all the way to Ballygowan. That underlines clearly the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol that my hon. Friend referred to.

The regulations do not do what they purport to do—they do not address the withdrawal issue—so I ask again that instead of this SI we trigger article 16 and secure trade for the entire UK. The time is more than past and words and action have to mean something. We should trigger the article and secure trade beyond July, December or, indeed, whatever date. We in Northern Ireland need to be treated the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom. The Minister has always been very helpful when we have asked her to do anything; I hope she has the answer. There is no pressure on her whatsoever.

I thank all those who have taken part in the debate.

Last June, we announced a timetable for the introduction of controls on imports from the EU into Great Britain. The introduction was phased to ensure that businesses would have time to prepare. Hindsight is a wonderful thing: I for one could certainly not have predicted, last June, the full effects of the pandemic. In fact, I am sure I am not in a position to do so today. It is important to recognise the scale and significance of simultaneous challenges: new controls and the pandemic’s extended economic and personal disruption. We have listened to the concerns of businesses, which have worked hard to be ready as soon as possible but still need more time to prepare. I will not apologise for making sensible and business-friendly decisions. We will continue to keep the House fully informed as we go, but we live in extremely unusual times and it is important that we adapt to them appropriately.

As I outlined in my opening speech, this instrument is a critical component in our ongoing legislative process to ensure a robust biosecurity imports regime now that the transition period has ended. It delivers the first stage of the Government’s assessment of our need for a pragmatic process to continue to phase in controls on imports in a manner and to a timescale that can reasonably be met by importers and others in the trading sector.

There are no biosecurity risks from this delay. Current EU biosecurity standards are essentially the same as our own, and where that is not the case—for example, with certain plants—we have already delivered more robust controls that remain in place. We will continue to enforce full customs procedures for controlled goods such as tobacco and alcohol, and we will still impose controls on traders we deem to be high risk. I want to reassure the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) that we continue to intercept illegal movements using intelligence-led operations. If there is a difference, it is that we can be more targeted in our approach, because we are now able to focus specifically on risks to GB, rather than the EU as a whole.

We continue to provide support to help businesses get ready, both here and in the EU. On the fifth point raised by the hon. Gentleman, as we move out of lockdown, we are looking for more suitable forums to engage with industry, which we do on a regular, day in, day out basis. I spent a very useful hour at lunchtime chairing a discussion with the Food and Drink Federation, and there are many such contacts between DEFRA officials and business all the time.

We ran an extensive communications campaign, provided one-to-one support to some of the largest traders, hosted webinars for thousands of small businesses, and provided £84 million directly to expand the customs intermediary market. DEFRA has put in place a movement assistance scheme to support and assist traders moving plants and products, and making agri-food movements, from GB to NI since 1 January. The aim of that is to increase understanding and preparedness by providing a helpline that traders can use to seek guidance on moving goods, as well as providing financial support by reimbursing some certification costs associated with those movements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) made her points very powerfully. It was useful to have direct and real experience from the port of Dover reflected in our debate. I listened with interest to what she said about live exports, and I very much look forward to hearing news about that in the very short term. The Government are determined to legislate in that space.

There has been a review led by the Cabinet Office of the inland facility at White Cliffs, and I understand that the decision will go to the XO Cabinet Committee—the EU Exit Operations Committee—very shortly. I understand that my hon. Friend has had useful discussions with colleagues today and has been able to make her points powerfully to them. Until then, no decision will be taken, but I reassure her that she will be kept fully informed throughout the decision-making process.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always speaks passionately on farming and animal-related matters, that the responsibility for appointing the appropriate vets is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but we continue to work very closely with the devolved Administrations. As we work to get ready for January 2022, we will work directly with the ports where we have residual concerns about readiness. We will always ensure that any response that we come up with is one that can be brought into operation effectively. I would also like to reassure all those who mentioned this that we continue to work very closely with the EU to resolve outstanding matters, and that process will in the end, I hope, lead to fewer rather than more checks as we move forward with this new regime.

We have had a constructive and useful debate today, and I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.