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Border Checks on Imported Goods: New IT Systems

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made with developing the new IT systems required to implement the planned border checks on imported goods; and when they expect to be able to implement those plans.

My Lords, IT systems required for the introduction of border import controls are in place and have been live since 2021. The Government set out plans for border import controls more fully in a Written Ministerial Statement on 28 April.

My Lords, the Government recently announced the fourth postponement of the introduction of SPS tests on goods from the EU, until the end of next year. Previous postponements were excused on the grounds that the ports needed more time to build the infrastructure required, but they have now done that and they are complaining that they have invested £100 million in redundant equipment. Vets and farmers are warning of the dangers of importing disease along with unchecked goods. Do the Government still intend to introduce those checks; how will they manage the risks until they do so; and will they be compensating port authorities for the cost of expensive investment at a time when life is very hard indeed for all those involved in international trade?

My Lords, there were a number of questions there. My right honourable friend has decided that we hope to accelerate to the end of 2023 the move to a new regime. In that light, a decision was taken to continue with the present system, with the changes he has announced. As for the ports, I recognise what the noble Baroness said. We are aware that ports will have questions about the decision, and we will certainly be working with them to understand the implications. However, it is important that we invest in a more mechanised border, and that is our objective: a fully modern border, the most modern in the world, as soon as possible.

My Lords, on the matter of border checks, is my noble friend aware that those boarding the Eurostar at St Pancras have to pass through two passport controls separated by a few yards—the United Kingdom one and the French one? Is it not possible to have a single passport control, or is this one of the hitherto unidentified benefits of Brexit?

My Lords, I fear I have not had the pleasure of travelling on Eurostar lately. I will take up my noble friend’s comments with the appropriate authorities and provide him with an answer.

My Lords, while the decision to delay the imposition of new import checks spared businesses additional costs at a challenging time, it also called into question the Government’s commitment to preserving high standards of animal and human health. Does the Minister think it fair that our domestic farmers must meet such stringent export controls while their European competitors enjoy comparatively simple access to the UK market, with all the attendant public health risks that that brings? Could not this situation be partially resolved by a mutual veterinary agreement?

My Lords, we have taken the decision. As the noble Lord referred to in the first part of his question, the fact is that, at the moment, one does not wish to add particular difficulties against the international background. However, we have introduced, and will maintain, checks on high-risk animal and plant products. The noble Lord’s point is important. I can assure him that we respect the input of the British Veterinary Association—this was referred to in a previous question—and that of other expert bodies, and we will work closely with it over the next year and a half to design the new regime of control.

My Lords, it certainly appears that secure, digital and paperless are synonymous with tomorrow’s world. However, would the Minister care to expand on his initial response as to what assessment has been made of business readiness for the closure of CHIEF and migrations to the CDS for imports and exports? How does this align with the Government’s timeline for border changes as part of the border 2025 strategy?

My Lords, the replacement of CHIEF with the CDS, which is proceeding, is the responsibility of HMRC rather than my department, although I obviously answer for the whole Government. It is a major contributor to the strategy overall. The Cabinet Office and HMRC are working closely to ensure that work is aligned but it is still the expectation that CHIEF will close and migrate when the new procedure is in place. I can assure the noble Viscount that we will maintain close liaison with business on that matter.

My Lords, when it comes to the movement of goods between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, could the Minister look urgently at IT systems that incorporate trusted trader schemes and the implementation of red and green channels? Surely, with a dose of common sense, the current impasse over the protocol could be sorted out.

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, consideration is being given to these matters. I will not tread into that in this particular answer, but I can assure him that elements of trust should certainly play a part in any wisely conducted border. That is why my right honourable friend Mr Rees-Mogg has set up a pilot project called Ecosystem of Trust—not my phrase—to work with the private sector. It is designed to prove the concept of trusted supply chains across the board, not simply in relation to Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Prime Minister promised two-and-a-half years ago to get Brexit done. It seems extremely inefficient that this key element of our future trading relationship with the European Union has to be postponed time and again. Does the Minister not think it is time that the Minister for Government Efficiency has some sharp words with the Minister for Brexit Opportunities?

My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend is capable of almost any form of conversation. I repeat: this is not a delay. It is a deliberate decision to take a different approach and part of that decision is that the 2025 target is being brought forward, as I explained to your Lordships earlier.

My Lords, as the Minister develops the border protocols for 2025, will he reconsider prioritisation for medicines and other life-saving products? If we have learned anything for the pandemic, it is that some of these supply chains really are quite fragile. This could do with another look.

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. I will certainly take it away and discuss it with colleagues.

My Lords, if this is not implemented by the new deadline, who will, in the words of the Prime Minister, accept full responsibility? Will that also mean blaming everyone else?

My Lords, it will be implemented. We will publish a target operating model this autumn, which will set out how and when the new and improved global regime—not just with the EU—of border import controls will come in. As the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite asked, that will be based on a proper assessment of risk. It will, as the noble Viscount asked, harness the power of data and technology. Also, as I have told noble Lords, we will target the end of 2023 as a revised introduction date for this regime.

My Lords, this is the fourth deliberate and previously unannounced delay. The Minister has said that it is to save businesses’ costs, so what are the estimated business savings of this deliberate delay?

My Lords, we have estimated that there are significant potential savings in annual costs, but I repeat my fundamental point that this is not a delay but a deliberate decision to move towards a new target date.

My Lords, pursuing the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Hailsham, I seem to recollect that at the time of the construction of the tunnel, we agreed in writing with the French that a little piece of England would become French and, on the other side of the channel, a little bit of France would become England for the purposes of border checks. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that that arrangement is still in place, or have we now asked our friends in France to give us back that territory?

My Lords, I am not aware of any such suggestion, but as I have said to my noble friend Lord Hailsham, I will look into the operation of passport controls on Eurostar. I will take into account the other border that he refers to and will write to noble Lords.