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Brexit: Food Imports

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 7 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many additional food inspectors will be put in place to ensure that food imports from the European Union are checked at transit ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

My Lords, there will be no additional controls on food and feed originating from the EU. However, non-EU high-risk food and feed consignments transiting the EU to the UK will be subject to controls, and will enter the UK at ports with the required facilities to undertake those controls. Following analysis to determine the possible number of such transits, there are sufficient inspectors at UK ports with those facilities to undertake all relevant import controls.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that the Department for Transport has agreed a number of new freight routes from the EU to smaller UK ports as part of the contingency planning. Meanwhile, the Government seem to be relying on existing staff in existing ports to carry out food inspections, despite the fact that they will not have access to the EU quality assurance documentation that they have had in the past. Is the Minister not concerned that some unscrupulous EU and third-country food exporters will exploit those new routes and offload their second-rate or even contaminated food when they know that they are unlikely to be checked? What guarantees can the Minister give to UK consumers that food imports will continue to be safe to eat in the event of no deal?

My Lords, we have been working closely with the Food Standards Agency on all these matters. Careful consideration has been done with the APHA, the Food Standards Agency and HMRC precisely to ascertain whether the ports and their health authorities have the appropriate facilities to accommodate the 6,000 additional checks that we think would be required because of those transit goods, but—

My Lords, I apologise. Will my noble friend satisfy those of us in this place and food inspectors that the regulations required to be in place will be passed before 29 March? What is the timetable for bringing them forward?

My Lords, obviously, we need to be ready in this case for transit goods— which I take it is the subject of the Question—and the 6,000 additional checks. Imports will have to be pre-notified. Work is well advanced with importers and agents. It is clear that those items that would not be inspected within the EU must be inspected and checked at UK points of entry. That is precisely what we have been working on and the Border Delivery Group has insisted on it.

My Lords, I understand that Ministers have taken a decision to instruct those operating at the border to prioritise flow and throughput over all other considerations for all goods. What assessment has been made of the risk posed by that to public safety and what assessment have the Government made of the consequences of that decision and those recommendations for those operating at the border?

My Lords, I do not identify with that. Biosecurity and human health are paramount. That is why the Food Standards Agency was very clear about there being no need on day one for additional controls for goods coming in the EU —precisely because the same EU standards are required and will continue. The point of the additional checks that will be undertaken is to ensure that our food is safe. As I said, the port health authorities have said that they have adequate facilities to enable that to happen.

My Lords, the noble Lord is renowned for being a moderate and sensible Minister in this Government. Apart from perhaps considering proposing President Tusk for the Charlemagne Prize in view of his sensible remarks, which have been described as bullying when they are not at all—they are very wise advice, albeit a little late—will he consider now the total insanity of the Government’s list of intended leave measures? An alternative is still available to the Government: to pause, think again and decide to stay in the European Union.

My Lords, my responsibility to the House is to answer the Question. I assure your Lordships that all work is being undertaken to ensure that, whatever its source around the world—and we welcome good-quality food—food is safe for human consumption. That is the responsibility I am addressing this morning.

My Lords, the Minister has spoken of additional checks and new systems at the borders using the current inspectors, so will he tell the House what training those inspectors have had for the new systems and checks?

My Lords, that is a very helpful question. There are currently about 91,000 consignments arriving from third countries and the additional 6,000 consignments I mentioned should be looked at in the context of that 91,000. The port health authorities are confident that they have adequate facilities and personnel, but if at any time in the future there were a need to look at this, of course that would be the responsible thing to do. We are working very closely with the world-renowned experts at the Food Standards Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

Does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom has the competence and capacity to produce 80% of our foodstuffs, even for our widely diverse population, because we are such superb farmers? Would it not be right for the Government to stress firmly that the National Farmers’ Union and Britain’s farmers deserve all our support and we do not need all these controls on imports? Others want to buy our food, rather than the other way around.

My Lords, I should first declare my farming interests, as in the register. Of course, we should champion domestic production: we have some of the best agricultural land in the world to produce the food that we do. But certain items that we all enjoy and are good for our health come from abroad. We need to ensure that all the food that comes from abroad is safe for people to consume—that is why we have the Food Standards Agency and the APHA—but we have very good food in this country too.