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Plant Health etc. (Miscellaneous Fees) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2023

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Plant Health etc. (Miscellaneous Fees) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2023

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, these regulations were laid before this House on 26 October. This instrument amends the Plant Health (Fees) (Forestry) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015 and the Plant Health etc. (Fees) (England) Regulations 2018 to extend an exemption in certain circumstances from the payment of fees in connection with applications for a phytosanitary certificate.

The 2015 and 2018 regulations set fees for delivery of plant health services in England by the Forestry Commission and Defra respectively. This includes fees for phytosanitary certification services required to comply with entry requirements relating to controlled plant health material. All businesses that use these services are charged a fee to recover the cost of delivery.

Earlier this year, the UK Government and the European Union announced the Windsor Framework. It fundamentally amends the old Northern Ireland protocol to restore the smooth flow of trade within the UK internal market and safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the union. Under the Windsor Framework, new schemes allow for the smooth movement of retail agri-food goods, plants and seeds for planting, seed potatoes, and used agricultural and forestry machinery and vehicles from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Where goods do not move with the new Northern Ireland plant health label or via the new Northern Ireland retail movement scheme, they must meet different requirements including, in the case of plants and plant products, being accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate. These goods move through what is sometimes referred to as the red lane, where fees and certification requirements apply.

For businesses that move goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland outside of the new schemes, but where the goods remain in the United Kingdom, the UK Government introduced the movement assistance scheme. Introduced in December 2020, the scheme waives the cost of inspections and certification for businesses moving agri-foods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This underlines our ongoing support for the agri-food and horticultural sectors in the United Kingdom, as well as for consumers in Northern Ireland.

In September, as part of a package of financial support provided to support the industry with the implementation of the Windsor Framework, we confirmed that the scheme would be extended. This instrument specifically ensures that fees related to issuance of phytosanitary certificates are disapplied until 2025 for goods moving from England to Northern Ireland.

Amendments made by this instrument extend an exemption from the payment of fees for certification services where goods are moving from England to a private business or individual in Northern Ireland. The exemption also applies to movements of goods by private individuals in their passenger baggage.

Although the SI applies in England only, as it is a devolved matter, both the Scottish and Welsh Governments are currently taking forward their own parallel legislation.

This instrument will ensure that trade from England to Northern Ireland is not subject to additional plant health costs until 1 July 2025, giving businesses time to adapt to the new movement routes now available thanks to the Windsor Framework. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this statutory instrument. As he indicated, these regulations cover businesses which are exempt from paying fees to Defra and the Forestry Commission for pre-export and export certification services for products of animal origin and phytosanitary certification for regulations of plants, plant and wood products and other material between England and Northern Ireland. The current fee exemption expires at the end of this month.

This SI is straightforward and will ensure that the movement of goods between England and Northern Ireland continues to run smoothly without the need for cumbersome paperwork and the payment of fees. Apart from removing the expiry date for the current legislation, there is no other change to the movement assistance scheme. The Scottish and Welsh devolved Administrations, having been consulted, plan to lay parallel legislation to amend their devolved fees legislation.

I support these regulations and have a couple of questions. As there was no significant alteration to the SI, no formal consultation took place. I understand this, but will the Minister say what form the informal stake- holder engagement took? The Explanatory Memorandum indicates that this engagement was strongly supportive of the proposed extension, so it would be useful to know just how it took place. I note that a new date of termination of 2025 has been inserted into the EM and I assume that, when we get to that date, the fee exemption might possibly be renewed. Can the Minister confirm this?

Lastly, paragraph 13.2 of the EM states:

“This instrument applies equally to all businesses trading in regulated plant health material between England and Northern Ireland, including small businesses. The costs associated with this trade are not mitigated by the size of the business”.

Does this mean that where costs are incurred they are not proportionate and that small businesses will pay the same as large businesses? I would be grateful for clarification. Apart from these small queries, I am happy with this SI and its provisions.

My Lords, we support this statutory instrument. I do not think there is any reason for me to repeat why it is required; that was ably introduced by the Minister and referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell.

It is important that intra-UK trade is effectively maintained, which this instrument is designed to do. I was pleased to see that Scotland and Wales plan to make parallel legislation; it is important that the devolved Administrations are consulted and move forward with the Government here.

I have one question of clarification for the Minister: why did the extension have to be made? Do the Government believe there is going to be a competitive disadvantage to UK exporters or internal UK suppliers from the fees being applied or do the Government just need more time to get everything ready? It would be useful to understand the reasons for the extension date but, beyond that, we are happy to support this instrument.

I thank both the noble Baronesses for their interest in this issue and their support for this measure. As I described earlier, the amendments in the Plant Health etc. (Miscellaneous Fees) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2023 are being made to provide an exemption from the payment of fees for certification services where goods are moving from England to a business or private individual in Northern Ireland. The purpose of this instrument is to ensure that trade between England and Northern Ireland is not subject to additional plant health costs until 1 July 2025, giving businesses time to adapt to the new movement routes now available thanks to the Windsor Framework.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about renewal in 2025. That will of course be a key decision for the Government of the day, who will examine the very facts that I hope respond to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about the purpose of this exemption. Its purpose is to facilitate trade and make it as easy as possible. While the progression from the Northern Ireland protocol to this new Windsor Framework arrangement is being made, we want to resolve as many impediments to trade as we can. As has been said, the movement assistance scheme is extremely popular. Why would it not be? It means that people do not have to pay more money. We want to make sure that we operate as fairly as possible and that people in Northern Ireland can get access to goods as easily as people anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

On the question about consultation, Defra undertook a programme of consultation with its certification and testing delivery partners, including the devolved Administrations, local authorities in England, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the Forestry Commission, the Soil Association, trade bodies such as the Organic Food Federation, and others. Each organisation reported overwhelming support for the extension among its members and users. Defra also meets frequently with organisations from the whole Northern Ireland agri-food supply chain regarding the implementation of the Windsor Framework. They have also welcomed the extension of this scheme.

From its commencement in 2021, the purpose of the movement assistance scheme has been to support transition to the negotiated end state by maintaining frictionless trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. The scheme achieves this aim by defraying costs of certification and other requirements of the new trading environment, as described by the Windsor Framework and, previously, the Northern Ireland protocol. Delivery of improved SPS inspection facilities, which I visited in Belfast, plus new digital certification solutions will replace direct financial assistance and maintain trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

As I have outlined, the regulations extend the exemption from the payment of fees for phytosanitary certification services where goods are moving in the direction I described. They ensure that the current policy for intra-UK trade is maintained without an additional financial burden to businesses—that addresses a key point that the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised—relating to certification services provided by Defra and the Forestry Commission.

Motion agreed.