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European Union: Trade Barriers

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2023


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to reduce trade barriers to food imports from the European Union.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Howarth and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the trade and co-operation agreement maintains zero tariffs and zero quotas on the trade in goods between the UK and the EU, and it includes a commitment to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade. The border target operating model will provide a proportionate and streamlined regime to support businesses to trade, while maintaining high levels of biosecurity. The UK and the EU are rolling out electronic certification, which will facilitate trade through reducing delays and business administration.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, but it is largely based on hope. The fact is that food imports from the EU have decreased by over 1% and our exports to the EU have decreased by nearly 6%, so consumers miss out on European products and our farmers miss out because of EU rules, regulations and bureaucracy. My noble friend Lord Howarth and I disagree on the outcome of Brexit, but we agree that the present arrangements are inadequate. When will the Government renegotiate the trade agreement with the EU?

I hate to disagree with the noble Lord but the total value of imports of food, feed and drink from the EU in the three months to April 2023 was £10.6 billion, 11% higher than the three months to April 2022 and 34% higher than the three months to April 2018. Over that period, exports increased from £3.5 billion and were 4% higher than last year and 6% higher than the year before that. We are trying to introduce a system that is fair to importers and exporters and that protects our very important biosecurity.

We are making great progress. I can assure my noble friend that we are on the point of publishing more details on a system being brought in from October this year whereby products of animal origin will require an export health certificate. From January, they will be checked at border control points we have constructed. We are minimising the burden on business through risk categorisation, a trusted trader system and simplifying and digitising our network.

My Lords, the operating model the Minister referred to stated that we will have the world’s best border by 2025 but it will not be fully operational until 2027—so good luck with that. Since 2017, we have seen a net decline and we have the biggest agrifood trade deficit with the EU we have ever had. At the same time, we have seen an enormous rise in imports of agrifood from China as part of an astonishing £42 billion trade deficit with China. Why is it government policy to make it harder to trade with Europe and easier to import from China? It makes no sense whatever.

You have to slice and dice the different products that are exported to China. We had a very good pork meat export, which was stopped because of issues relating to Hong Kong. We want a system that is focused not just on imports and exports from our closest neighbours, vital though that market is. We want to make sure we are trading fairly with the rest of the world, which is why we will have a sanitary and phytosanitary border system in place that is understood right across the world and that facilitates safe trade.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why the Government are so firmly determined not to have an SPS agreement with the European Union, despite the fact that other third countries—for example, Switzerland and New Zealand—have such agreements? In what respect does the agreement reached in Brussels yesterday, by the Foreign Secretary and the vice-president of the Commission, on agrifood trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland differ from an SPS arrangement?

Our SPS arrangements with the EU are vital. When we were in the European Union, we had a system of trading at home and abroad which was controlled; now, we can have a bespoke system that suits our circumstances. To those who sometimes criticise the Government for doing this, the cost of getting it wrong is really quite horrific. If we had African swine fever, currently rampant in parts of Europe, or Xylella, which affects trees, the cost would be in the multimillions or even billions of pounds. I want to have Ministers facilitating trade, not sitting in COBRA trying to deal with a disaster.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the devastating effect of the Brexit changes on the Welsh mussel industry? Those products need to go from north-west Wales to the restaurants in Paris, for example, within 14 hours. Is he optimistic that the changes he is hoping to work for will relieve the problem and re-establish that industry?

For trades like that to be successful, it takes two to tango and we want to make sure that our continuing conversations with our partners in Europe are facilitating precisely that sort of trade. There will not be a delay from this side of the border.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The Minister will be aware that France is 100% self-sufficient in food, whereas we import 48% of our needs. Obviously, some products we are going to have to import, but surely we could do more to be self-sufficient in dairy products, beef and potatoes. Does the Minister agree that one of the key lessons of Covid and the Ukraine war is the need for more food security?

We are 74% self-sufficient in products we can grow in this country and 62% self-sufficient in all food items. We are setting in train a whole range of policies through which we are trying to assist farmers to diversify their businesses, to find new markets and to find them locally. I absolutely agree with my noble friend that we want to be as self-sufficient in other products as we are in eggs and some dairy products, for example.

My Lords, I wonder what account His Majesty’s Government have taken of the impact of ending their direct payments to English farmers, and whether it has put them at a competitive disadvantage compared to their European counterparts.

I do not see how that can happen; 55% of the direct payments went to the 10% who constitute the largest farmers—a deeply unfair system. We are focusing on payments with environmental benefits, encouraging farmers to achieve the standards required by their buyers. For example, ARLA is demanding that farmers do not pollute and have good animal welfare systems in place, and we, through our environmental land management schemes, are supporting farmers to do that.

My Lords, the operations manager at Felixstowe port, Hannah Panting, told the BBC that Defra has informed it that the health authority will have to check between 1% and 30% of EU food exports. She rightly pointed out that the unknown is very difficult to work with, and that it is nice to have a plan and know what your targets are. I think the House would agree. Can the Minister assist Hannah?

We work very closely with Hannah and other port managers—for example, on the common user charge, which is a way of alleviating very high costs on some and very low costs on others, which we think is fair—but we also work with local authorities. The local health authority is also facing a cost-recovery arrangement. We are making sure that we have a risk profile that minimises the number of stops for low-risk items, but we are absolutely focused on the problem. We will continue to work with ports and all other authorities to make sure that the impact is minimised as much as possible.

My Lords, the Minister has referred on several occasions to a risk-based system for checking food imports: the border target operating model. Of course, we are moving into unknown territory here—we have not used it before—so does the Minister agree that it would be sensible for the Government to ask the Food Standards Agency to produce an objective assessment every so often of the impact of the changes in import controls on consumer food safety?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. Obviously, we work with the Food Standards Agency—although it is not covered by my department—daily to make sure we have got this right in all areas of food safety. At the moment the highest-risk items are products of animal origin, for obvious reasons, and certain plants that can bring in diseases such as Xylella, which I mentioned earlier. None of the work we are doing with the Food Standards Agency is secret, so there is no problem with making it public.