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Official Controls (Location of Border Control Posts) (England) Regulations 2024

Volume 838: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2024

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the Official Controls (Location of Border Control Posts) (England) Regulations 2024, laid before the House on 22 March (SI 2024/416), do not contain information about how the Government intend to ensure that the drivers of vehicles subject to these controls attend the inland control posts.

Relevant document: 21st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument).

My Lords, I will speak to the Motion in my name, as a follow-up to a very interesting debate we had in your Lordships’ House on 2 May, led by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on the subject of imports and exports of food and agricultural products. It was a lengthy debate, with some excellent comments from a number of noble Lords.

The Minister gave some good answers to many of the questions, but one that I did not feel that he responded to in enough detail was about where all the different checks on trucks would take place—most of the vehicles coming in are trucks, both big and little. I came away with the impression that, if the checks could not be done in Dover because there was not enough space, the drivers would be told to go up the A20, which becomes the M20, and turn left at the fourth junction, which is called Sevington near Ashford.

Now I know that area very well and I thought that there would be a temptation for the drivers to forget to turn left and trundle up either to London or to a small shed, where the cargo could be transferred to another truck and possibly avoid some of the checks. I felt that that was an omission that the Minister might like to put right—and I am sure that he will do so tonight. I am very grateful that we had a quick chat about it recently.

In addition to the comments made by noble Lords in that debate, there has also been a lot of media coverage, particularly about the import of EU food, and comments about basic questions such as: what is a “consignment”? Noble Lords may not want to know what a consignment is, but can the Minister say whether it is a truckload, several parcels in a truck, or something in between? Several years after Brexit, this should have been sorted out. We are told that there is a shortage of staff and places to have the checks, which is adding cost and delay, particularly to the import of foodstuffs, which have a shelf life, and this is something the Government should have sorted out before now.

However, coincidentally, yesterday the Government published a new document—I am sure that it has nothing to do with the fact that we are having this debate today—called What To Do When Attending an Inland Border Facility. It might be complicated but is only about 10 pages long, so I am sure that all the truckers in the world will be studying it over their tea. It gives good information about what they should and should not do, but it also demonstrates how incredibly complicated the system is. The first thing it says is:

“Get ‘border ready’ … Get ready before you reach Kent”—

I suppose that depends which direction you are going in. But, under the heading “Common Transit Convention movements”—I am not going to read out the whole document because we would be here all night—the document indicates that a good debate that your Lordships held two or three weeks ago seems to have delivered something that may actually be of help to the importers and exporters. Maybe this is a lesson that the Government, who may change after the election, want to be remembered by this wonderful document, which has taken them two or three years to produce. However, there it is, and I look forward to the press comments saying how wonderful it is. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for securing this debate, and I return to issues that I have previously raised with the Minister, particularly about biosecurity and the impacts on small and medium-sized enterprises through the operation of these inland sites. I have three points to make.

First—perhaps the Minister can provide information on this—I have been speaking to the environmental horticulture industry and I declare that, along with the Industry and Parliament Trust, I have a fellowship with the Horticultural Trades Association. What seems to have settled into the pattern for the environmental horticulture sector is that it is seeing large numbers of lorry loads being simply waved through and not being subjected to any checks. I am well aware of the desire to make sure there is not too much obstruction at the border, but there is a general feeling, which I will come back to later, that Sevington does not have enough space or staff capacity at the right times and it is impossible to carry out the biosecurity checks that were previously done on-site when goods arrived at nurseries and other places. That presents a serious biosecurity risk, when we know the pests and diseases that potentially can be imported from the continent. There are also concerns about goods coming from other places.

Secondly, I refer to the comments made in the past few days by the director-general of the Institute of Export and International Trade, which particularly looks at the food aspects. He referred to

“businesses left in the dark with vital information provided much too late, the systems being introduced aren’t working properly. Businesses are frustrated, hauliers are angry and fresh produce has gone off due to repeated delays”.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I am not going to read out an enormous amount of detail here, but it is worth people in general knowing that, on 17 May, Defra issued a series of updates. These indicated that medium-risk plant products will now be split into two categories: “Medium Risk A”, which need phytosanitary certificate and pre-notification, and “Medium Risk B”, which need a phytosanitary certificate but no pre-notification. So far, only certain fruit, such as quince and stone fruit, are in the latter category; spinach leaves have just moved from the “Low Risk” to the “Medium Risk A” category. We have to look at the usage and what is happening to the facilities created by the instrument that we are discussing and think of how difficult it is for people to manage this system when those kinds of things are happening.

Finally, again referring to Sevington, I want to mention issues that were raised by the Dover port authority at the end of March but that still very much apply. Now that we have had some time for the facility at Sevington to be in operation, perhaps the Minister can comment on the way in which it is going. There was great concern about whether Sevington had sufficient capacity to be able to handle products of animal origin. The reports I am hearing suggest that many lorry loads are either being waved through or ending up having to wait for long periods, which for animal products is a serious issue.

We are going into an election period. I guess that these issues are probably not going to get much of an airing for six weeks or so, but they are continuing issues that will need to be grappled with by whoever is in government and by an industry sector that is giving strong indications that the Government’s systems are causing it to struggle enormously with getting in the goods it needs.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for putting down this Motion for debate and for rightly emphasising the importance of the short straits crossing in relation to these regulations. To pick up his final point about the government guidance issued yesterday, this new system was introduced on 30 April. It defies belief that, after all these months of preparation, the situation is still producing a time lag for instructions on how people should be using them.

Obviously, the area of greatest concern throughout the UK is the issue of Sevington in relation to the short straits crossing, because it is about 20 miles from Dover and from the mouth of the Channel Tunnel to Sevington. Previous questions I have posed to Ministers have produced what I understood to be a statement that there are no plans by the Government to escort vehicles from the port to Sevington and no plans to observe those vehicles to make sure that they get safely from one to the other. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that people will be trusted to take that journey and not to disappear en route. The drivers of those vehicles will already have been picked out and will know that they are under additional checks. They would have every incentive to avoid those additional checks if they were intent on some kind of malpractice. I fully understand that the average driver is not of that ilk, but there are people with what have been described to me as seriously dodgy loads.

The more one looks at this, the more unworkable the system becomes. The £29 common user charge per consignment imposed by Defra contrasts with the French customs regime, which charges only consignments from the UK that need SPS checks. It also seems that privately operated ports in many other parts of the UK will charge only consignments that need checking and will not, as in the case of Defra and its charges in Dover, be charging every consignment.

The risk of these charges and the way in which they are being imposed is of course that it will divert trade from the Channel Tunnel and Dover, and drivers will be incentivised to take their loads to ports that will not charge every load. That could lead to longer land routes, which will be undesirable.

In relation to the short straits route, charging per consignment irrespective of the value of goods risks making groupage consignments unsustainable and could lead to them being charged more than the value of the goods they are transporting. Logistics UK has produced warnings that some traders are intent on stopping selling to the UK.

Finally, on 18 April the UK Government told the country’s port authorities in a presentation that they would not turn on critical health and safety checks for EU imports when post-Brexit border controls began, on 30 April, because of the risk of significant disruption. I am now confused as to how many ports in the UK are in practice operating these checks; are there a number of ports where they are not taking place? If that is the case, can the Minister clarify to us how many of the ports are operating those checks, how many are not, and how long it will be before the whole system is operational? How have we got to the point where 30 April was announced and yet the Government appear unprepared?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for bringing his regret Motion for debate this evening.

Speakers have raised concerns about how operating the inland BCPs will potentially make it more difficult to manage biosecurity and food safety risks. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, went into some detail around specific concerns. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee discussed these risks with Defra, and in its response Defra acknowledged that there was a small risk because of this approach. In its report, the SLSC said:

“We agree that the use of inland BCPs does not make it more likely that harmful goods are not detected. It is a concern, however, that transporting goods and live animals from a port to be checked at an inland BCP, especially where this is located at some distance away, makes it more difficult to contain potential biosecurity risks than carrying out these checks within the compounds of a port”.

As other noble Lords have said, I would like to press the Minister on how the Government plan to manage these risks effectively, as Defra has acknowledged that there is a small risk.

As my noble friend’s regret Motion is mainly around drivers, I will concentrate on that. We know that lorries must drive 22 miles from Dover to the border control post at Sevington. Anyone found to be carrying unsafe or contaminated food could then be asked to turn around and drive back again. As we have heard, there is not enough information or instruction on what drivers are supposed to do. The Government have not explained how lorries will be monitored between the port and the control post or how they will ensure that goods which have been identified as unsafe leave the country.

I was interested in the comments from Nan Jones, the policy technical manager at the British Meat Processors Association. She has asked how we will ensure that those products get back on the ferry. With that gap, how do we know that they have not unloaded a load of products when they have been rejected? Returning a large consignment of high-value product such as meat would constitute a big loss for a business. Relabelling a product and finding an alternative market such as a wholesaler or restaurant could be tempting. She added that, once it is in the country, if you are that way inclined there are many ways in which you can disguise it.

We know that drivers need a lot of support through the changes because the impact of new border controls on drivers can be pretty significant. We know that there is increased documentation and checks, a lot of additional paperwork, that safety and security declarations, customs forms and other documentation will be required. While you need documentation to ensure compliance with regulations to prevent illegal activities, it is a lot of extra work for drivers to ensure that they are compliant with.

We also know that you could end up with longer waiting times at border crossings. All of this we have discussed at length. However, it does put a lot of extra pressure on drivers. Efficient planning and understanding of any new requirements will be crucial for drivers to deliver on time and in a manner that they should be doing. We also know that fuel costs could rise because of longer waiting times at border check points. Various businesses have raised concerns about that with us.

Drivers need to understand what is happening. These relations are evolving. How do they ensure that they adapt their processes in a way that is compliant with all the biosecurity and safety measures that are coming in? If they are not careful, quite accidentally they could end up with penalties. It is important that proper information is available for drivers.

I want to mention a letter that the Cold Chain Federation trade group wrote to Steve Barclay, the Environment Secretary. The group was concerned that volumes of illegal meat seized at Dover were a demonstration of the determination of criminals to bring in and trade in illicit goods and that

“the 22-mile corridor now open to them (or indeed, other criminals to intercept high value goods) adds further risk to the UK food chain in that it provides numerous routes to exit from the inspection process”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, went into some detail about concerns about illegal behaviour. She also mentioned the short straits routes. I will not go into that, as we discussed it at length in the last debate, but these are real concerns for industry.

There have also been concerns that the Government’s plans to manage the risks effectively and enforce the arrangements in practice are not necessarily laid out and that there is not enough understanding about how that will work. That includes whether the authorities will be able to monitor properly whether the lorries are carrying out the checks that they are being instructed to do. How is that all being managed?

What plans are there to ensure that drivers who do not speak English properly understand the information and what they are supposed to be doing? I am sure that the Government will have something in place, but it would be good to have confirmation of that.

I would like to raise one final thing. Another potential problem is that UK government computer systems used to identify potentially risky consignments are prone to errors, which could send thousands of trucks for physical inspection. According to the Financial Times, people who attended a meeting on border management with Defra said that officials admitted the error rate was currently 33%. I am not sure if the Minister was at that meeting, but it would be interesting to know if that is correct.

It is absolutely a delight to be here this evening and to get such a warm and thoroughly lovely reception from everybody. I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for the privilege of standing at the Dispatch Box in this important debate, and all of those who have spoken for their thoughtful and constructive comments.

The legislation that is the subject of this debate has been instrumental in implementing the second phase of the border target operating model. New controls under the model began on 30 April, and I am pleased to report that, contrary to some of the press speculation and some of the comments made this evening quoting the press, checks have been introduced successfully at border control posts throughout the country. Defra will continue to monitor the controls and the impacts, and their effectiveness.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked how the Government intend to ensure that drivers of vehicles subject to controls attend the inland border control posts. Drivers will be instructed, if their goods have been called for an inspection at a border control post, by a port official at the point of entry or at the short straits through a digital system. That system comes up on their telephone, and their telephone number has to be inserted into the system for the electronic IPAFFS to actually pass; they cannot get in without that information being on the system. It cannot fail and so far has not failed.

Where a physical check is required, goods cannot be legally placed on the UK market until the load has been taken to a border control post, inspected and cleared. An instruction to attend a border control post for an inspection constitutes a legal requirement. Should a vehicle fail to attend a border control post, officials can require the return or destruction of the goods for the relevant local authority to carry out controls, such as identity or physical check. There is no evidence so far of traders taking advantage of Sevington’s inland location to circumvent checks.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, also asked what a consignment is. It is a range of goods covered by the same certificate, which is pre-filled to enter the country through any of the border control posts.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, took some delight in telling me that that we were failing on pretty much every single front in the system that we have implemented. She gave me a few examples, which I did not recognise. I am sure she would understand that this is a very significant change to what has gone on before. We have not ever done checks at our borders, or at least not for a very long time. The imposition on businesses importing into this country is significant, and the Government are well aware of the cost and the time and trouble this will cause. At the same time, I think that she would agree with me that it is extremely important that we do this for our own biosecurity. There are multiple reasons, which I think we would collectively agree on, for why we are doing this.

For many years, we have done nothing. We are now starting to build up our new border controls and biosecurity controls. To go from nothing to everything in one go would undoubtedly have created the scenarios the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson, Lady Bennett, and others keep telling are happening at the moment. They simply are not, and I gave a clear instruction at the beginning of the process that we want a pragmatic approach. We are not in the business of closing down UK business, but we have an imperative to check and to build up those checks over a period of time, taking a risk-based approach. It is not helpful to be told that we are not doing everything we should be doing. Of course we are not: we are in week two. We may be doing everything in a few months’ time, and perhaps somebody else will be standing here at the Dispatch Box answering questions on that. I think and hope that they will see the benefit of taking a pragmatic approach, because we do not want to stop trade in this country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said that she felt that there were not adequate staff at Sevington—it is not “Severington”, just for information. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness has been there, but I have. I have spoken to the staff and seen them operating there, and I can tell her that it is working very well and is fully staffed, so I do not recognise the comments that were made.

There were comments too about getting from Dover to Sevington, which is 21.7 miles away, and the risk that might constitute. Of the goods coming in to Sevington, 99.9% are from organisations we trust and know; it is a formality to check that there has not been a mistake, and that we are not inadvertently bringing in some pest or disease. The people coming to Sevington are not looking to import things illegally into the UK; they are following our rules. They have export health certificates, have followed the whole system all the way through and have loaded everything up on to the system; we are simply checking that all those formalities have been done correctly.

We should not conflate that with the illegal importation of meat that comes in primarily, but not exclusively, through Dover, which is brought in by a van and a driver from Poland, Romania or somewhere else. Those people will never go to Sevington: they are not on our system and we do not even know they are coming. It is really important to avoid conflating those two things. If you do, you get very confused about what Sevington and every other border control post in the UK is trying to do. Stopping illegal imports is the job of Border Force at the border. Checking goods that are coming in through our prearranged system is the job of our border control posts. They are fully manned and fully operational across the entire country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked me about an error rate of 33%. That number is not familiar to me—I have never heard of it—so I will go away and check. If the rate is anywhere near that, I will certainly write to the noble Baroness.

With that, I will conclude. Once again, I thank all those who have spoken this evening for their thoughtful and valuable comments.

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. It has been very interesting; so many examples from different parts of the importing world and cargoes have been cited. I am grateful to the Minister for his response, because he clearly disagrees with many of the issues that have been raised. He may be right that it is short-term.

I will make a couple of points. First, I think he said it in the previous debate, but the Minister mentioned again drivers in white vans from Romania. I used to live in Romania, about 50 years ago; I was working there. It is a member of the European Union, like so many other member states, and has just as much right to being treated with dignity and respect, and speed, as people from other member states. A lot of people criticise meat from Poland—

I wonder if I might comment. I absolutely agree that anybody from Romania or Poland, or indeed any other country in the world, has the right to be treated in a dignified way. But the fact of the matter is that, in Romania, African swine fever is running riot. It might be in Europe, but it could be any other part of the world. The point is that we do not want African swine fever. If you import illegal pork into this country, you will bring African swine fever with you at some point.

I am grateful to the Minister. We will have to see. Where I live in Cornwall, there is a boatyard next to me that builds fishing boats, and it has about 15 Romanian welders—legally, I should say —and they are bloody good welders. The fact remains that we are importing most of these goods from the European Union, and I am sure the Minister agrees that everybody will be treated equally.

My main concern, which several noble Lords have raised, is when things go wrong. Whether or not there are enough staff we can go on debating until the cows come home, but government IT systems have a habit of not always being 100% successful. This is probably something for the next Government, but the Minister can keep on thinking about this for the next few days: what is the fallback situation when it goes wrong? In other words, is there a manual system that will keep the goods moving while somebody sorts out the computers?

We will have several months when there will be a lot of press about this, and there will be no Ministers to answer questions, so we will all watch it with interest. Somebody or other in this Chamber will be on the other side of the fence at that stage, and will be able to answer criticism. If it is the present Minister, then in Opposition, I am sure he will enjoy that.

It has been a very useful debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken and to the Minister for his very comprehensive reply. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.