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Border Target Operating Model: Food and Biosecurity

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023

I will call Mrs Natalie—[Interruption.] Order. Can people please be quiet as they are leaving the room so that we can get on with this debate? Thank you. I will call Mrs Natalie Elphicke to move the motion and then I will ask the Minister to respond. Hon. Members will be aware that, as is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Border Target Operating Model for food and biosecurity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Today is Back British Farming Day. However, supporting our farming and food producing industries is not just about buying British and replacing EU subsidies; it is also about our food security, and protecting our biosecurity is an essential part of that. We must support our farmers and food producers with a level playing field and high quality standards. Why do border checks matter? This has been very well expressed by the National Farmers Union:

“Proportionate and effective controls are necessary if we are to prevent outbreaks of pests and diseases that threaten human, animal and plant health, the safety, quality and biosecurity of our food products and the confidence of our trading partners.”

Those dangers to our food and biosecurity are there every day at the border. Spot checks at the Dover border have highlighted some very serious concerns.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. She is outlining some of the problems and she will also be aware that the outstanding issues with the remnant of the insidious Northern Ireland protocol and Windsor framework have yet to be addressed. How will the model that she is describing and the suggestions that she is making ensure free and fair passage of food to Northern Ireland without reams of paperwork checks and other wastes of time and money that are designed only to pacify Europe and which harm Northern Ireland business? Surely we are in a worse boat than anybody else.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is exactly right, as ever, in bringing out the very serious issues with the management of the Northern Ireland issue. Controls have to be modern, proportionate, effective, and fair to business. He makes that point very well.

What we have seen on the Dover border is rancid meat, seeds with dangerous levels of pesticides and meat that could contain livestock-infecting diseases. All of these have been detected coming through Dover from the EU.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is fitting that the debate is taking place on Back British Farming Day. Biosecurity is pivotal to protecting UK farming. As she has mentioned, infectious disease is coming in. We know the implications of foot and mouth disease and African swine fever. Does she agree with me that getting this targeted border operating model up and running and working is critical to the nation’s biosecurity, animal health and welfare and public health, and that pivotal to all that is to ensure that we have the Animal and Plant Health Agency resourced and staffed so that it can monitor the borders properly, and also to upgrade the facilities at Weybridge in Surrey, its disease HQ?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is incredibly knowledgeable on this issue, as we have just heard, and he is exactly right. We cannot wait any longer. I will be explaining how, at the Dover frontline, we have had a ready-to-go, state-of-the-art facility mothballed for 18 months. It should be put to work straightaway to protect our nation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to put these facilities and these new measures in place urgently.

What are we finding at the moment? With global food disruption and increased costs of production getting worse because of the war in Ukraine, threats to food safety are on the increase. It is not just food. Farm animals are threatened by the diseases carried in infected meat. We need to be very clear about that. This is not the odd rogue import. Dover Port Health Authority has found it happening on an industrial scale—tonnes of this stuff. It has formally warned the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the increased risks and findings.

This meat does not meet our—or even Europe’s—required standards for slaughter, storage or import. It is not just unhealthy, but dangerous. The danger is not just to humans, but to our livestock and therefore to the livelihoods of our farmers and food producers. That is because this rancid, illegal meat can contain live viruses of some of the most serious threats to our animals. As we have heard, diseases such as African swine fever have steadily spread from eastern Europe to Germany and now France. The NFU has said:

“A breakdown in biosecurity is one of the most serious risks we face as a nation.”

I agree with that.

It is welcome that the Government have, at last, published the border target operating model. However, the long delay and continued uncertainty around the new arrangements is worrying. Concerns have been raised with me by Kent-based import-export businesses, national food and drink trade bodies, the British Poultry Council, the NFU and the Dover port health authority. As I mentioned, it is some 18 months now since Dover’s ready-to-go, taxpayer-funded, state-of-the-art post-Brexit facilities were mothballed, awaiting the publication of the proposed target operating model for the border. At the time, the model was expected in some weeks. In the end, it was published just a couple of weeks ago, on 29 August 2023.

Almost a year ago, last October, I led a debate in Westminster Hall on this subject. The then answering Minister said that for traders, the target operating model

“will explain what must be done upstream of the border before goods arrive at it, and what must happen at the border—including border control posts”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 271WH.]

We finally have the border target operating model, but in relation to the short straits, which means the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel, we have no confirmed border control posts even now.

The target operating model says that a decision will be published soon and that facilities will be operational in April 2024. However, as I have outlined, the Dover facility has been ready to go for some 18 months. April 2024 would represent a delay of some two years from when the facility was due to be made live, during which time the operating environment for food and biosecurity has significantly deteriorated, as DEFRA has been told time and again.

Given the importance of these issues, the delay is unacceptable. The state-of-the-art facility at Dover needs to be opened right away. Dover has the expertise needed to secure our borders, but it is not being supported as it should be. Dover needs to be backed in its vital role in keeping our country’s food and farming safe. Government action is needed now to ensure that we are properly protected from dangerous food and diseases coming into the UK. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm when the new Dover facility, which is so obviously needed, will be opened.

I would like to address why things have taken so long and what needs to happen. There are three issues. The first is the dreaded phrase “cross-governmental working”, which, in layman’s terms, means that no one person is in charge and the buck does not stop anywhere. As I have before, I make the case for a Department for the border to draw together all the border-related functions, as many other countries do, including America and Australia. It would be a single window under a single Department responsible for order at the border. From customs to trade, and from biosecurity to visa entry and migration, there is an urgent need for a single Department in charge of setting policy, overseeing operations and—importantly—taking responsibility for what is happening at our borders.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly about being joined up. We are talking about the risks, but there are also opportunities for UK businesses. If we get the level playing field right—if we get a post-Brexit regime that not only deals with all the UK concerns and needs but provides a level playing field for businesses here and abroad—it is a great export opportunity for small businesses such as Tozer Seeds in my constituency.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. If we can get the import border checks right, we will boost our export potential as well, whereas if we have weak import controls we will put at risk the very businesses that should be taking the opportunities provided by our new trading agreements in our post-Brexit world. I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention.

The need for a single department and a single focus at the border also applies operationally, because accountability matters. It is imperative that Dover continue to be the sole port health authority responsible for the short straits. Anything else would weaken accountability, introduce new risks in our border controls and make our country less safe. Dover is best placed to manage resources between multiple facilities to keep trade moving and manage the ebb and flow of volume traffic movements. It is well used to doing so and is the most cost-effective and sensible option to manage the border. I am aware that Dover port health authority has written to Ministers to express its strong wish to oversee all relevant border control posts for the short straits in order to manage and control the risks. I hope that the Minister can give some update or assurance on that issue tod-ay.

The second issue is that the Government hope to introduce so-called digital borders. Unfortunately, that has not proved possible to achieve quickly, as the Government’s own wonderfully named ecosystem of trust evaluation report, which was published last month, sets out. Let me be very clear. Having digital borders is a very good idea that I am very keen on—later today I will be chairing the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain, and I wholeheartedly agree that the future border is a digital and even a smart one—but there is a problem. At the moment, neither industry nor Government are ready for digital borders. That is made clear by the ecosystem of trust evaluation report in relation to biosecurity and food security. Page 8 of the report says:

“The UK government believes that transforming the border means moving physical processes away from the frontier wherever possible.”

As a border MP, I cannot see any logic in the suggestion that the starting point would be moving checks away from where the goods come in. Checking at point of entry is regarded globally as the gold standard for border control, with very good reason: to stop bootleggers and smugglers and to contain the risk of contamination of the food chain. Those risks are not trivial. The evaluation report makes it crystal clear that digital borders, at this time, will not work. There is no effective substitute for the physical border checks that need to happen. Page 4 of the report says:

“The pilots show us that new models are not yet ready to replace traditional mechanisms of border control.”

The reasons for that are not high-tech. As pages 22 to 24 of the evaluation report set out, they are very basic things like descriptions of the load and weight of a consignment being available only in formats that are not machine-readable by digital border systems or are

“incompatible with government-systems specific risking rules.”

What does that mean? It means that they cannot be read by the IT system, so we cannot have an intelligence-led, risk-weighted approach. We therefore cannot, at this time, have a digital borders programme.

The report says that

“there was no way to replicate identity and physical checks. Defra notes biosecurity assurance capabilities from consortia”—

the pilot partners—

“are limited and do not provide the same level of information/assurance as regular import processes.”

The report also identified gaps, one of which was

“Lack of transmission data (ie likelihood of a disease hazard surviving on a commodity).”

That could mean rancid meat carrying a serious disease, which cannot be found through these digital processes. There is also a lack of “mitigations and prohibitions data”—information about whether there is a disease outbreak or an export ban in the country that the food is coming from. That is a very serious concern that I hope the Minister will address.

For the Food Standards Agency, the information gathered through the digital process was described as being of “little value”. The report concluded that there are serious threats that need to be addressed and that an

“effective import regime is therefore essential to protect domestic food safety and animal and plant health and welfare.”

That brings me to my third and final point. The evaluation report is clear that physical border checks will be needed for the foreseeable future to keep our country safe, and that that is the right and responsible thing to do. Digital borders will come, but not yet.

Much has been made of the costs of making checks at the short straits—we still await the final charging structure, which is expected at some point in autumn 2023—but against them we have to set the cost of doing nothing. We cannot allow toxic food to enter the food chain. We cannot risk disease threatening our national livestock herds. We know how much this costs, because we have been here before. The costs are even set out in the Government’s own report, at page 56: the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 cost an estimated £8 billion, the horsemeat scandal of 2013 cost £120 million, and ash dieback in 2014 cost £15 billion.

There needs to be a level playing field—that is important. The British Poultry Council has said that its industry is paying £55 million a year to export to the EU, while imports to the UK are free for EU exporters. That is unfair and undermines our British farmers and food producers. DEFRA needs to stand up for our farmers to have a disease-free level playing field with the highest food standards. As we have touched on, if we import from a country that is suffering an outbreak, we can expect that other countries may ban our own produce. That could affect our ability to make the most of the trade agreements we have made, so it is important that that does not happen.

The bottom line when it comes to border security on food and disease is that we must invest to keep our food, our farms and our exports safe and secure. We cannot rely on the EU to check our food for us. We are an independent trading nation, so it is right that we now do this for ourselves. That is the clear lesson from the evidence found at the Dover frontline.

I ask the Minister to join me in thanking the Dover Port Health Authority team, under the leadership of Nadeem Aziz and Lucy Manzano, who is here today, for the work they do every day to protect our country from food and biosecurity risks. They need to be better supported, particularly with the immediate opening of the new Dover facility. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government will keep our country safe and, on Back British Farming Day, keep our farmers and their livestock safe and biosecure.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for securing a debate on this important topic, and I thank all colleagues who have come along. I join her in paying tribute to the team at Dover, who do so much to protect our borders and who work hard on our behalf.

The recently published border target operating model is a very important milestone for the UK, reflecting a long period of intense work across Government, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about it today. Introducing biosecurity controls on imports is not optional. They are critical to protecting us from harmful diseases such as African swine fever, but they are also essential to protect our international trading interests; our trading partners want to be reassured that we maintain the highest biosecurity standards. The overall ambition of the BTOM is to introduce robust controls that protect biosecurity while reducing administrative and cost burdens for importers.

Following our departure from the EU, it was for us to establish a controls regime that worked for us. That is set out in the BTOM, published on 29 August. We issued a draft BTOM in April 2023 for the purposes of consultation with stakeholders. During that period, we had about 10,000 participants at multiple stakeholder events, received over 200 written responses through our online portal, and had over 650 detailed responses at focused sessions with food retailers, producers, the logistics sector and many others. We have listened to that feedback and have adapted the model accordingly. To give businesses more time to prepare, which their feedback made clear was important for them, we have moved back by three months the phased introduction of controls.

The new controls will be introduced as follows: on 31 January 2024, health certification will be introduced for imports of medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products, and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin from the EU.

I would like some clarity. Let us imagine I have had a career change and am bringing a lorryload of qualifying Northern Ireland goods from Northern Ireland to GB. Under the new model, will I be free to drive off the ferry and proceed on my onward journey without being stopped?

The Windsor framework sets out the criteria for trade between GB and Northern Ireland. We are keen to facilitate that border and to work with businesses in Northern Ireland. We want Northern Ireland to feel very much part of the United Kingdom, as I know the hon. Lady does, which is why we are trying to make sure that that trading operation flows as freely as possible.

I think the Minister may have misunderstood the question. It is not about GB to Northern Ireland. Now that the border control model is going to refer to goods going into GB, will there be any checks on Northern Ireland qualifying goods going from Northern Ireland into GB—or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) asked, will people be free to drive through without any checks at all?

I am not quite sure that I fully understand. Is the right hon. Gentleman talking about trade coming from Northern Ireland to the European Union?

Let me take another intervention and let the right hon. Gentleman try to explain the question again.

We are talking about trade from Northern Ireland into GB—trade that the Government have said will be totally unfettered. Since the border operating model will require goods going into GB to have checks, the question is: will Northern Ireland goods then be subject to checks going into GB?

My apologies; I now understand the question that the right hon. Gentleman is asking. The TOM does not change controls on qualifying Northern Ireland goods. They will still benefit from completely unfettered access. It should not affect that at all.

Let me just return to what we are doing on the new controls.

I will take another intervention, but I do want to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover.

There will be goods travelling from the Irish Republic via Northern Ireland—through the port of Larne or through Belfast—into Cairnryan. How will a distinction be made between loads of Northern Ireland qualifying goods and goods coming, for example, from the Irish Republic, which is part of the EU, through Northern Ireland and into GB? What criteria will be put in place to ensure that those goods are checked but Northern Ireland ones are not?

I am very conscious that this is a debate about the Dover straits, and I do not want to be diverted into a debate about the Windsor framework, but I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s passion on the topic. We are setting out how the Windsor framework will operate in the future; as I have said to him, we are very keen to ensure that trade is as free as possible between Northern Ireland and the rest of GB.

Let me return to the controls that we are introducing. On 31 January, we are introducing health certification on imports of medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products, and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin from the EU. On 30 April 2024, we will introduce the 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 from the EU. We will also begin to simplify imports from non-EU countries. On 31 October 2024, the requirement for safety and security declarations for imports into Great Britain from the EU or from other territories will come into force. Alongside that, we will introduce a reduced dataset for imports, and use of the UK single trade window will remove duplication.

In response to the feedback on the draft TOM, we have also improved the trusted trader offer for animal products, designed a new certification logistics pilot to support movements of goods from hubs in the EU, and provided further information on how we will support importers using groupage models to move sanitary and phytosanitary goods into the UK.

We are confident that the decision to move controls back by three months achieves the right balance between supporting business readiness ahead of the introduction of the controls and mitigating biosecurity risk to the UK. In the meantime, DEFRA has implemented controls on the highest-risk imports of live animals and plants from the EU. We will continue to support and fund port health authorities to manage UK biosecurity, including controls to protect against African swine fever.

As was promised when we published the UK 2025 border strategy in 2020, the TOM introduces a range of technological advances to ensure a fully 21st-century border that facilitates UK trade. The development of a single trade window will make the process for importing to the UK simpler and more streamlined, enabling importers to meet their border obligations by submitting information only once.

Let me turn to the facilities in Kent. To implement the SPS controls regime, we need the right infrastructure, particularly in Kent, where the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel are the main points of entry for the majority of EU SPS imports. Further to the publication of the TOM, and based on data gathered, the Government are reviewing our BCP needs in Kent and reviewing whether two inland BCPs—one at Sevington and one at Bastion Point—are needed to serve the volume of SPS goods transiting the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel. As the infrastructure was constructed for a previous border model, which required more intensive checks, it is only right that the Government review the operating arrangements to ensure that they are proportionate to our needs and are cost-effective for traders using the short straits.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for sharing her views on the matter in such a forceful way. She is a passionate advocate for her constituency, which is important to the UK’s security. As she knows, we will be in touch shortly with a decision on this important matter. I thank her again for securing the debate, and I thank all colleagues who have participated.

My right hon. Friend is making an important speech about the new regime, and much of it is welcome. He has made the point that pests and disease do enormous harm to crops. Maize crops can suffer losses of up to a fifth from any outbreak of pests or disease. I would be interested to know a bit more about what the Government will do on surveillance, because that is the most important way of preventing diseases from coming into the UK in the first place.

My right hon. Friend raises an important point: we need to make sure that we are using surveillance. As he will be aware, it is often best not to talk too publicly about the methods we use to protect our borders and detect diseases, but I can give him an assurance that we take the issue very seriously. We use intelligence to detect where the risks will be, but we also have robust regimes in place to make sure that we can pick things up as they come into the country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) mentioned, African swine fever is moving across Europe. It is vital for our pig sector that we protect ourselves from the disease entering the UK, which is why we are introducing robust regimes to make sure that we protect our border, back our farmers and back our food production system. Working together, that is what we will do, moving forward.

Does the Minister agree that if we get a fully operational border target model, it will not only protect the nation’s biosecurity, but help to unearth the illicit movement of animals in and out of the country? That includes puppy smuggling, the smuggling of heavily pregnant dogs and those that have had their ears horrifically cropped, and horses being illegally exported to Europe for slaughter. Can he reassure me that the new model will help to stamp out some of those practices?

Those are all things that we want to achieve. The way to do so is by having a very efficient border point where we can check things, deter criminal activity—let us be clear that some of this stuff is criminal activity—and prevent inadvertent infection through diseases and pests at the same time.

We have had a really productive debate. Once again, I put on the record my thanks to the team at Dover for keeping us secure, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for her support.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.