Skip to main content

Imports from EU to UK: Grace Period

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what plans Her Majesty’s Government have to extend further the grace period on imports from the European Union to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, as I have noted, the Government have set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full import controls for goods imported from the EU to the UK. This revised timetable gives businesses more time to adjust to the new processes as they recover from the pandemic, which has impacted supply chains across Europe. As I have also noted, we have no plans to change this timetable further.

My Lords, as well as a damaging, dangerous shortage of HGV drivers and millions of pounds’ worth of food rotting in the fields around the United Kingdom, we now have this unbalanced situation where UK exports to the EU have full checks but there is this further, “pragmatic” delay in checks on imports, which will cause problems for our importers. Can the Minister remind the House who was responsible for negotiating this disastrous deal? Could he tell us the secret which might be of interest to some of his former colleagues: how did he get reappointed to the Cabinet?

My Lords, there are some things that are best not delved into, I think. I am sorry that the noble Lord feels that an agreement with the EU which restores democracy to this country and gives us power over our own rules is so disastrous. It was nevertheless what we were elected to achieve and have achieved. We are very confident that we will benefit from it.

My Lords, in his answer to my previous question, the Minister indicated that the appropriate comparison on trade figures would be with 2018, the last time that the economy was stable. The latest ONS figures, from July, show that trade with the EU is now down by 11%. What other pragmatic measures can the Government take to restore trade with the single market of the European Union?

My Lords, as I frequently note, there are obviously many things going on in the global economy and in global supply chains, including the pandemic, increased costs and so on, and it is very difficult to draw firm conclusions from trade figures. It is true that July’s figures show a small dip in exports to the EU but, nevertheless, since January, exports to the EU have been rising consistently. In June, they were higher than the pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit figures. We are confident that British business is rising to the challenge and will continue to do so.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that what he describes as a “pragmatic” policy is in fact a measure of discrimination by the British Government against non-EU imports at our borders, because they face controls in a way that EU imports do not? Does he accept that, as a result of that, we are potentially in breach of our WTO legal obligations as discriminating against different categories of people? Does he further accept that Covid is no excuse for these “pragmatic” delays? After all, the EU was able to impose its proper border controls in January 2021. Is this not yet a further example, of the many, of this Government’s incompetence in managing a very botched Brexit?

My Lords, obviously there is a distinction in how we manage goods imported from the rest of the world compared to those from the European Union. That is consistent with WTO law and is obviously dependent on the special circumstances of us leaving the customs union and the single market. It is our intention, of course, to have a single set of world-class rules by 2025—if possible, earlier—for all goods that will give us the best border in the world. The decisions that we have taken on import controls are consistent with that and on that trajectory.

I welcome my noble friend’s decision to prolong the grace periods, for the reasons that my noble friend Lord Moylan spelled out earlier, but will he confirm that experience of grace periods in Northern Ireland shows the wisdom of what he is doing: that refraining from introducing the additional controls that the EU wanted us to impose on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has not resulted in a flow of goods into the EU across the Irish border or undermined EU standards in any way, and that the only reason the EU is persisting in wanting us to apply those controls is to punish us and the people of Northern Ireland for Brexit?

Of course, I agree very much with the thrust of my noble friend’s question. We believe that in the decisions we have taken, both in the context of the protocol and on trade more broadly, we are showing pragmatism in the way we are managing our borders, with a due focus on the real levels of risk involved. We hope that the European Union will do the same in the context of Northern Ireland and allow us to put in place arrangements, as set out in our Command Paper, that are consistent with those levels of risk.

My Lords, it is striking that none of the problems raised is anything to do with the Minister or with the Government; it is all about Covid, the French, the Irish or the EU, but the nation is starting to suss this out. The Food and Drink Federation said just this week that the Government are undermining trust and confidence, because responsible businesses prepare for changes that repeatedly do not happen. Frustration is growing. Food and drink is Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector, employing people in every region, and it needs certainty. Does the Minister accept that if we do not reach a lasting agreement soon, these stopgap solutions will cost jobs?

My Lords, we have great food and drink industries in this country; some of them have imports in their supply chains as well as exports and the free flow of trade in both directions is very important. I have noted what the Food and Drink Federation has said on this subject. I could not help noting that, last week, it was worrying about the consequences of introducing these controls and fearing that the just-in-time system would not work, while, this week, it is concerned that we have delayed the controls, so I think we just have to take the best decisions we can in the interests of the whole economy and enable our businesses to prosper as a result.

Does the Minister realise that the grace period puts British industries at a substantial short-term disadvantage? Are there any upsides beyond those already described by my noble friend Lord Moylan? I am very glad to see that my noble friend Lord Frost is still a Minister. What diplomatic and other steps will he take to put this matter on to a more satisfactory long-term basis?

My Lords, we are obviously in constant touch with the European Union through the institutions created in the trade and co-operation agreement and many others. We sought last year to negotiate more relaxed arrangements at the border in both directions, on food and drink and on other issues. Unfortunately, the EU was not open to that at that point, but if it were to become open to it in future, we would obviously wish to engage in that discussion. That is clear, and we will keep making that case, because we believe that it is in the interests of both parties.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that accusations are being made against him that he is of the view that sabre-rattling gets results from Brussels? What can he do improve our relationships both with Brussels and in particular with the Irish Government? Does he agree that our relations with those two are pretty poor at the moment?

My Lords, I do not agree that relations with either Government or entity are poor, though relations can always be better, of course, and there are some significant differences between us at the moment. I am not sure that I agree with the suggestion that we are sabre-rattling; that is not the way we go about things. We are setting out our case and being clear about what changes would produce a better situation, whether as regards the protocol or anything else. It helps relations when countries are clear about what they think and others can respond.

My Lords, one of the things deterring people from becoming HGV drivers is the amount of time now spent going through the ports, with so many extra forms to deal with. The Minister has recognised this by extending yet again the date for implementation of the new rules, but of course they apply going into the EU. What is the Government’s estimate per average lorry of the additional time it now takes to transport goods to the EU? How many additional HGV drivers do we need for that alone?

My Lords, we obviously keep the flow of HGVs, lorries and trade at all our ports under very close scrutiny. I do not have figures to hand on that subject, but I know that trade is now flowing freely, delays are minimal and I pay tribute to the customs authorities not only of our Government but of our closest trading neighbours—France, Belgium and others—who show a degree of pragmatism in enabling this to happen, so that whatever difficulties there were at the start of the year are no longer significant and trade is flowing freely.