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Food Import Requirements

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 14 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of new food import requirements on (1) domestic producers, and (2) food safety.

My Lords, the controls set out in our new border target operating model, BTOM, represent a comprehensive assessment of the biosecurity and public health risks presented by imports, together with the risks of relevant pests and diseases. They allow us to assess our confidence in the exporting country’s production standards and health controls. The BTOM aims to strike the right balance between allowing trade to flow and protecting our domestic producers from threats such as African swine fever.

My Lords, April’s post-Brexit import controls come after numerous delays and redesigns, and against a backdrop of a shortage of vets to check consignments and hauliers to move them. The port of Dover is concerned that the decision to have physical checks so far from its border will enable illicit activity between the two sites. Domestic producers are worried that, as they face higher input costs and labour shortages, EU farmers will be able to undercut them. How can the Minister guarantee that British farmers will benefit from these reforms and that there will be no undermining of our high welfare and food safety standards?

I thank the noble Baroness for her extensive question. The purpose of the BTOM is to provide that balance between the necessity to check for our biosecurity and allowing trade to happen. Specifically on Sevington, since 2022 the Government have provided funding to all port health authorities, including Dover, to support Border Force, which has the responsibility for checks on illegal imports. The Government recognise the rise in illegal imports, particularly pork, from eastern Europe, which is why we continue to provide additional funding to district port health authorities. With the introduction of BTOM, many of the Dover Port Health Authority’s duties and associated costs will move to Sevington, including the commercial trade checks that are being implemented, hence the reduced funding package for Dover.

Does it not sound like Mrs Thatcher’s belief in the single market was a good idea? Should we not recognise that and stop this nonsense now?

I thank my noble friend. The last time I checked, we collectively voted to leave the European Union. The Government’s job is to implement the biosecurity checks to make sure that we are protected—not just our farmers and our consumers but the trade deals, which are worth billions of pounds a year to the UK economy.

My Lords, could the Minister find in his briefing pack the several occasions on which the European Affairs Committee of your Lordships’ House has recommended that there should be an SPS agreement with the European Union? If he looked at that, could he answer this question: how many of the new controls being imposed would be required if we had an SPS agreement with the European Union?

The noble Lord raises a very good point. I do not have the exact details of the requirement he is asking for, so perhaps the best thing I can do is write to him on that.

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register. The Minister will be aware that we import 45% of the food in this country, and surely one of the lessons from the Ukraine war is the added emphasis on food security. Can the Minister say something about import substitution, and can he also give the House some assurance that the sustainable farming incentive does not always prioritise environmental schemes over food production?

I thank my noble friend for his question. The Government take the issue of food security extremely seriously, and we are absolutely committed to producing high-quality British food for British consumers. Getting the balance right between what we produce through our SFI programme—or our ELMS programme, I should probably say—is a fine judgment between getting the environmental and biodiversity improvements we all want to see, and producing food for the country.

My Lords, with beef and pork exports to the EU down by more than 20%, and the import of apples down 16.8% and oranges down 18.2%, what steps are the Minister and his Defra colleagues taking to ensure that, first, British farmers are not going out of business, and, secondly, supplies of essential foods are protected for the British consumer?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. As I say, the Government are completely committed to domestic food production. I do not see that the introduction of the BTOM system has any bearing on what we import or export into or out of the UK.

My Lords, the Minister recently announced that meat imported through Dover will be checked at Ashford, which is about 15 miles upcountry. How is anybody going to stop the trucks from going straight up the motorway rather than turning left at Ashford? Will there be any enforcement, or are they just trusting people?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. It is important to differentiate between what is happening at the port of Dover and what is happening at Sevington. If you go to Sevington, you follow a system by completing the new electronic IPAFFS, which is designed for commercial imports. What is checked at Dover by Border Force is illegal imports. Now, you are not going to be sent to Sevington if you are illegally importing something; you go to Sevington only if you are following the Government’s designated procedures.

My Lords, has Brexit given any kind of boost to the production of apples in our country —those wonderful varieties Coxes, Pippins, Beauty of Bath and so on? I must say that I have not noticed any change since 2020.

I thank my noble friend for the question. I am afraid I am not an expert on apple varieties across the UK, but I know that there has been quite a lot of emphasis in government policy of late to widen the breadth of our different types of seeds and trees. I am sure that apples will be on the list; I will check for him.

My Lords, may I take the Minister back to his answer to the question from my noble friend Lord Berkeley? Perhaps I am very stupid, but I found it quite difficult to understand what he was telling us about the difference between what will happen in Dover and what will happen at the new facility outside Ashford. If people are being checked at Dover, what is then happening at Ashford? What is to prevent—this is the question he was asked—lorries leaving Dover that should be going to Ashford not doing so?

I hope I can clarify that for the noble Baroness. If you are commercially importing goods into the UK, you are following a system where you fill out an electronic form and that form identifies whether you are in the high, medium or low-risk category and whether you are going to be selected for a check at Sevington. When you arrive at the Port of Dover in your lorry, you will be notified that you have been selected for a check, and that information goes from the Port of Dover to Sevington. Sevington is then expecting to see the delivery arrive there shortly thereafter. That is entirely different from a white van arriving with illegally imported products—let us just call it pork—from eastern Poland. That is checked by Border Force at the port of Dover. So you have Border Force and you have border control posts, and they perform different functions.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm whether the necessary professionals are still being recruited in order to provide this service? What percentage of capacity will be available on day one? Will it be 100%, 50% or what?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. Having been down to visit Sevington myself, I can assure him that we are in the advanced stages of recruitment there. I fully anticipate that, by the time we are up and running for checks at the end of April this year, we will have a full complement of staff. As to whether we are going to go straight to 100% checks, the answer to that is no, we are probably not. We are going to monitor the situation and will be in control, through the IPAFF system, of the number of vehicles that we direct to Sevington for their checks.