Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this instrument extends the current regime of charging for plant health import checks to apply to checks carried out on consignments from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. This is in line with the standard approach that the full cost of service delivery be recovered from businesses using plant health services.
It is our responsibility to protect biosecurity across plant and animal health, and the wider ecosystem. To that end, plant health checks—documentary, identity and physical—are carried out on regulated consignments imported into England from non-EU countries which may carry pests or diseases that could pose a risk to our biosecurity. Currently, the highest-risk commodities are subject to 100% documentary, identity and physical checks. The level of identity and physical checks on other commodities is based on risk.
During our membership of the EU, plants and plant products were able to enter the UK from EU member states without the need for any import checks. However, inspections carried out as part of Defra surveillance programmes have identified instances where EU consignments have contained plant pests or diseases that could pose a threat to UK biosecurity.
To address that threat, and in line with retained law, from 1 January 2021 the existing regime of plant health checks is being extended to consignments of regulated plants, plant products and other objects imported from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Under the agreed phased approach, which allows businesses time to adjust to the new arrangements, higher-risk goods, such as plants for planting, have been subject to documentary, identity and physical checks from January. This has already resulted in a number of interceptions of consignments with pests and diseases, allowing appropriate statutory action to be taken. Documentary checks on other, lower-risk regulated plants, plant products and other objects will commence on 1 January 2022, with identity and physical checks applied from March 2022.
It is UK government policy to charge for many publicly provided goods and services. The standard approach is to set fees to recover the full costs of service delivery. This relieves the general taxpayer of costs, so that they are properly borne by users who benefit from a service. This allows for a more equitable distribution of public resources and enables lower public expenditure and borrowing. Charging for plant health services is consistent with the principle that businesses using these services should bear the costs of any measures to prevent harm that they might otherwise cause by their actions or inactions, since most serious plant pests and diseases that arrive and spread in this country do so via commercial trade in plants and plant produce.
Fees are applied for checks under the Plant Health etc. (Fees) (England) Regulations 2018. For lower-risk consignments eligible for reduced levels of physical checks, a proportionally reduced fee is applied to every imported consignment. This SI amends the 2018 regulations. It extends charging for plant health checks to also apply to checks carried out on consignments from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. In addition to ensuring equity with those importing from non-EU countries, it also reflects that exports into the EU are subject to chargeable import checks, so there is a degree of reciprocity.
We have worked closely with individual operators and industry bodies, including the Horticultural Trades Association, Fresh Produce Consortium and the National Farmers’ Union on developing our approach to dealing with imports from the EU. To give businesses time to adjust to the new arrangements, the fees for documentary, identity and physical checks on the higher-risk goods, and for documentary checks on other goods, will not be applied until June 2021, despite checks being undertaken since 1 January. Fees for identity and physical checks on the remaining regulated goods from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein will be applied from March 2022.
Under the 2018 regulations, there is a single combined fee for a documentary and identity check, reflecting the fact that both those checks were previously carried out at 100% on all consignments. From 1 January the frequency of the identity check is linked to that of the physical check as both checks are carried out at the same time. So any reduction in the level of physical inspection will also apply to the identity check. This instrument therefore provides for a separate fee for documentary and identity checks for all consignments. This SI does not make any other changes to existing fees for checks on consignments imported from non-EU countries, other than Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
This SI applies to England only. The vast majority of consignments entering GB from the EU do so via England. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are following the same phased approach in terms of the timetable for inspecting EU consignments and applying fees to recover the cost of those inspections.
This instrument is necessary because it provides for fees to be charged for plant health checks on commodities imported from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, thereby providing consistency with imports from the rest of the world, where fees already apply. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak in support of the draft plant health regulations, which, as my noble friend alluded to, come into force on 1 June 2021 in England, together with similar provisions to be introduced in Scotland and Wales. However, it is important to note that charges are to be phased in for businesses with plant health checks from 1 January 2021. Higher-risk goods will be subject to documentary, identity and physical checks from January 2021, but for other regulated plants and plant products they will be phased through 2021-22, supporting the importance of uninterrupted business trade flow.
As well as applying legislation equally across businesses, whether large or small, the risk is relevant to whatever size of business to clearly demonstrate the importance of biosecurity, which must not be put in jeopardy at any cost. We must note accordingly that assurances are being kept, with the same arrangements post Brexit, again stressing the absolute necessity of seeking at all times to maintain the same high levels of plant health biosecurity, which is vital to ensuring that public health and the environment are fully protected 24/7.
Where consignments are authorised for identity and physical checks there are assurances for all inspectors, who are allocated strong systems for safe working, handling and inspection, with adequate light sources, the ability to fumigate gas testing and, of course, access to toilets and handwashing facilities. This all aligns with safe working practices.
This instrument provides for reasonable action coupled with cost recovery, so it is fair in outcome and maintained in line with existing fees, characterised into the following three principles: maintaining current high levels of plant health, preserving the flow of trade, and minimising any future impacts on businesses, whether large or small. I support the regulations.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern. I thank the Minister for his explanation of the regulations. I have some questions for him regarding the operational nature of the regulations and the cost implications.
I fully concur with the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, that plant health and biosecurity are vital, irrespective of our constitutional position and Brexit. I note that the regulations will be phased in alongside other requirements, such as the requirement for importers to have a phytosanitary certificate. What is the timeframe for that phasing-in? Have assessments taken place regarding the operational nature of the regulations during this phasing-in period and, if so, what has been the result of such assessments?
I understand that only high priority plants and products from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein will be subject to these new requirements initially. I was going to ask the Minister what high priority plants are, but he has already told us that they are plants for planting. Are these all types or plants, or specific plants? How are they defined and will only these categories be subject to the new requirements?
With these regulations, the Government will be enabled to charge fees for plant health checks on imports from the aforementioned countries into England. Has charging already taken place in the intervening period, or will it happen only from 1 June 2021 in relation to the new factor of the post-transition period? What will be the actual cost to businesses and importers, and will there be any financial assistance from central government to mitigate the costs?
I, like other noble Lords, have been contacted by the Agricultural Industries Confederation, which stresses that the new non-tariff barriers and fees will have consequences. It asserts that the ongoing effects of both of these will continue to impact the seed industry, and could reduce choice for growers and increase the cost to consumers. As the implementation of the trade and co-operation agreement continues, the AIC urges the UK and EU to work together to balance the priorities of removing non-tariff barriers where possible, while minimising biosecurity and plant health risks. What reassurances can the Minister give in this regard? What will be the impact on importers? Has there been any assessment of how they will bear those costs, particularly during the pandemic period?
These regulations do not apply to Northern Ireland, because Northern Ireland will be covered by the protocol. But, as an aside to this particular issue, can the Minister provide any update that allows for easier ways to implement phytosanitary veterinary checks with respect to Northern Ireland? I note that the noble Lord, Lord Frost, is meeting his EU counterpart today.
An issue that was raised by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was the lack of an impact assessment. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the reasons for that. The committee was concerned about the potential impact of new additional costs on businesses and importers, and why this had not been considered worthy of assessment. The committee again raised the issue of costs.
These are some of the issues that I wanted to raise, but I believe and strongly contend that plant health and biosecurity are vital to the local agricultural and horticultural industry.
I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, who was such an effective and distinguished member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the other place. I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing the regulations before us today and being so clear about how they will apply. I assume that this is a direct consequence of our leaving the European Union, as we are now being treated as a third country.
I am also grateful to the Agricultural Industries Confederation for its briefing and I have a number of questions—harmless, friendly questions, I hope—for my noble friend in this regard. How does the department expect to work with EU counterparts, both through the European Union and directly with member states, to balance the priorities of removing non-tariff barriers going forward, wherever possible, while minimising biosecurity and plant health risks? I entirely endorse the basis that he set out as to why the regulations are required.
As this is a new regulation, and following the concerns raised in the 50th report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, why did the department decide not to conduct an impact assessment in this case? I am led to believe by the Agricultural Industries Confederation, a trade association representing a UK agrisupply industry that has a farm-gate value of more than £8 billion, that most of the seeds, presumably for agricultural purposes, actually come from the European Union. So the fees to which my noble friend referred, some applying from June this year and some from March next year, will apply for the first time, as they have not been importing in any great measure from the rest of the world. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked, does my noble friend have a ballpark figure as to what the size of the fees, the scale and percentage of the fees on their costs, will be?
I notice that the Explanatory Memorandum clearly states that there was a consultation with the relevant trade bodies, including the National Farmers’ Union, the Horticultural Trades Association and the Fresh Produce Consortium. Was the Agricultural Industries Confederation consulted as part of the preparation for the regulations before us today?
I thank my noble friend and the department for delaying the introduction of the fees, in particular those on imports from the EU, because that indicates that my noble friend and the Government are aware that there will be an impact on the agricultural businesses concerned. I ask those few questions about how wide the consultation was and about the reasons for not undertaking an impact assessment. There is, in fact, quite a major change in that most of the seeds, as I indicated, are imported from the EU and so will not previously have incurred a fee, as not many seeds were imported from the rest of the world. How will my noble friend and his department seek to remove and minimise other potential non-tariff barriers wherever possible?
I also ask, from a personal interest, whether FERA, which was in my constituency for the last five years I was in the other place, has done any work on the consignments that have been identified as having a potential issue. I am full of admiration for the work it does. I realise that its status has changed and that it does some private sector work as well, but it would be good to know that it is still assisting the Government in this regard. With those few remarks, I bid the regulations well.
My Lords, this SI has been prepared by Defra to amend existing regulations relating to fees for inspections of plant and plant produce imported into the UK from non-EU countries to reflect changes in inspection levels and corresponding fees according to risk profiles. EU law would continue to apply during any implementation period. Therefore, we are amending certain import inspection fees to give effect to changes at EU level.
My Lords, I would like a reassurance from the Minister that the challenges that plant growers in the EU and the UK have faced in importing and exporting with the new inspection regime are being addressed by this Government. The matter of the condition of plants is not new to me, as it must be some 40 or perhaps even nearer to 50 years ago that I imported camellias from Australia, my homeland. We had to have a phytosanitary certificate, all soil had to be washed from them and I had to go to the airport and pick them up instantly. As far as I know, they are still going, because I have taken a cutting from each one every time I have moved house. A man with a beautiful collection at a stately home here also took cuttings from those plants.
I understand that the RHS has reported that there are continuing problems with the movement of plants between Europe and the UK, with some even suspending trade with the UK due to the imposition of the new inspection regime. Amateur Gardening has even stopped attaching free seed packets on its magazines heading over the Irish Sea, as it would cost £1 million in the necessary health checks and certification. In addition, there is growing concern in the industry about the restriction in the choice of more specialist plants, due to the additional complexity and cost of the new certification and inspection regime. An unintended consequence of this is that some of these plants die before the order reaches these shores, despite the hefty inspection fee proposed by the regulations.
Can the Minister look at what can be done to make the process easier and quicker while also trying to keep down costs, which are ultimately passed on to the consumer in higher costs and may lead to much less choice now and in future?
My Lords, I thank the Minister and his officials for their time in providing a briefing yesterday morning, and for his introduction this afternoon. This is a fairly straightforward SI, which attempts to level up the playing field around importation of plant and plant products into the UK from across a wide spectrum of countries. It uses the same fee-charging basis to countries inside the EU, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, as currently applies to the rest of the world. As I understand it the fees may change slightly, but the methodology of calculating the fees will remain the same across GB and be based on the full recovery cost.
The fees in the schedules are extensive, ranging from £205 down to £6.40 for some seeds, per consignment. Yesterday morning, after the briefing with the Minister, I attended the launch of the Woodland Trust’s report, State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021. This provided some very stark detail about the state of our ancient woodlands and the wildlife that currently lives in them. Only 7% of our woodlands are in good condition, a devastating statistic given the role of woodlands in carbon stores and carbon sequestration. Many of our native trees have been lost through the importation of pests and diseases carried on imported plants and plant products.
Although woodland cover has increased, woodland biodiversity has decreased. Bird numbers are down by 29% since 1970, butterflies by 41% since 1990, and plants by 18% since 2015. Since 1990, 19 pests and diseases have been introduced into the country, threatening our biodiversity, compared with only four prior to 1990. The certification of trees, plants and plant products that come into the country is essential. Ash dieback arrived with us from the Netherlands. Xylella is also an extremely dangerous disease, which we must ensure we keep under control and prevent further importation, especially of oak saplings.
The gradual introduction of fees for health checks is to be welcomed to enable businesses to plan ahead and prosper. However, the various dates are confusing. The checks for high-risk products began on 1 January. This includes 1,200 entries on the plant risk register, including tree species. Lower-risk plant checking will begin in June 2021. However, fees will not be implemented until March 2022. I am slightly less concerned about low-risk plants, but I am very concerned about high-risk plants and trees.
At paragraph 3.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum there is mention of the devolved Administrations, and paragraph 7.7 indicates:
“Similar changes are to be introduced by the Scottish and Welsh governments.”
Can the Minister tell us whether the devolved Administrations have similarly been checking high-risk plant products since January or whether they are lagging behind? If no checks are currently taking place, a product could enter the country via Scotland or Wales without checking and then be transported into England, especially if the fees being charged are cheaper in the devolved Administrations than those being administered in England. I understand that some imports come through the island of Ireland and then into Wales. There is a possibility of some checking being avoided. Can the Minister provide reassurance?
I am concerned about the impact of costs to horticulture and other businesses of these additional fees. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, raised this as well. Although no fees will be applied until March 2022, the fees will be refreshed in October 2022, with an assessment being made of the full-cost recovery figures. At this stage there could be an uplift, which the importers, especially of seeds, might not be expecting. This could be excessive for them. Can the Minister comment on this?
This is a vital piece of legislation that should ensure the protection of our native-grown plants and trees. It should be rigorously enforced, and I fully support it.
We seem to have lost the noble Baroness.
Sorry, my computer took on a life of its own and decided to mute.
Biosecurity has become an increasingly important issue. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, UK imports of live plants have increased by 71% since 1999. But with increasing trade comes increasing risk of pests and diseases being imported inadvertently. It is extremely important that regulatory standards are not compromised following the UK’s departure from the EU, so we are pleased to support this SI. We know that there was previously some surveillance of plants coming in from the EU that sometimes found problems, so improved legislation with additional checks on plant imports from the EU provides an opportunity to detect plant pests and diseases at the border, therefore further reducing future pest and disease problems.
I turn to the detail of the instrument before us today. The Minister has explained that it enables fees to be charged for plant health checks on imports into England from the EU, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, bringing those countries into line with the rest of the world, and that under a phased approach, higher-risk consignments of regulated plants, plant products and other commodities imported from the EU, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have been subject to checks since 1 January this year, with such checks on the remaining regulated goods being phased in later this year and in 2022. As there are a number of different checks and dates of implementation, I would be grateful if the Minister could clearly outline the timetable and provide clarification as to how businesses and industry have been informed about these changes, and what information has been provided to ensure that they are fully ready.
Changing plant health regulations also provides an opportunity to increase public awareness of plant health and biosecurity risks, encourage wider responsibility and drive cultural change. Has the Minister’s department been working with stakeholders such as the RHS to ensure that the UK’s plant health regulatory requirements are presented in a way that is accessible and user-friendly in order to encourage this outcome?
We understand that Scotland and Wales are introducing similar provisions. Can the Minister provide information about what dialogue has been held with the devolved Administrations to ensure a timely and co-ordinated introduction across the whole of Great Britain? Will the fee structures be the same across the devolved Administrations, and is it likely that the fee rates charged could be different? Industry will have to consider how it reacts to the new charges, so if there are different fee rates, has the Minister considered how businesses are likely to react and also how importers will decide to pass on the increased costs?
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked the department about the expected additional cost to business arising from these fees and the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady McIntosh, have gone into detail around this. But it is important that the SLSC regarded Defra’s approach in this area as “poor legislative practice” by not having
“analysis of the expected financial impact”.
The fact that
“the Department found it necessary to phase in the fees to give businesses time to adjust”
shows that an impact on business has been recognised. As the SLSC points out, there is no real information on the anticipated impact of these changes for those in the trade.
Defra has engaged with stakeholders extensively regarding the planned changes; however, we know from previous experience that the total potential impacts of the UK leaving the single market and customs union have not always been completely clear or understood by those it affects. In earlier SIs we have raised our concerns about the capacity of ports to carry out inspections; I therefore ask the Minister: where will the inspections take place? What assessment has been made of capacity and what additional resources have been provided to ensure effective delivery of the new checks?
As a final point, in its submission to an inquiry by the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee into biosecurity, the Prospect union recommended better training for plant health officers, with the re-establishment of a viable training programme for new and established inspectors, plus joint training ventures with the Horticultural Trades Association and Royal Horticultural Society. Can the Minister inform us as to whether this has taken place and, if not, whether further training of officers is planned?
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords for what has been a constructive and interesting debate. If there are any points that time does not permit me to cover today, I will of course write to your Lordships.
I was struck by all the comments about biosecurity and why we are doing this. It is to protect plant biosecurity, as was made clear by my noble friend Lady Redfern and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. It is absolutely key that we embark on this in a very serious and important way. I was also struck by my noble friend Lady Redfern, absolutely rightly, referring to the importance of the safety of those working to deal with pests, disease and invasive non-native species, all of which impinge upon our biosecurity.
Given the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others, I thought it would be helpful to summarise the timetable for the introduction of checks and associated fees. On 1 January 2021, documentary, identity and physical checks were introduced on high-risk EU goods and carried out at places of destination. No fees are currently applied for these checks. On 1 June 2021, fees will be introduced for documentary, identity and physical checks on high-risk goods and for documentary checks on other goods. On 1 January 2022, physical inspections of high-risk goods will move to border control posts. On 1 March 2022, identity and physical checks on other goods will commence at border controls posts, with fees then applied for those checks.
The noble Baronesses on the Front Benches opposite raised the devolved Administrations. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are following the same phased approach as in England in terms of the timetable for inspecting EU consignments and applying fees to recover the costs of those inspections. In all parts of GB, fees will set to recover fully the cost of services provided, in line with the general Treasury principle on cost recovery. As services in Wales are provided by APHA on behalf of the Welsh Government, fees in Wales will mirror those in England. A different cost-base applies in Scotland, so there may be some differences to actual fees, but the same methodology and principles apply.
I give the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, my absolute assurance that the devolved Administrations are currently checking high-priority plants. We are working very closely and extensively with our devolved counterparts on operational readiness to ensure that our policies and plans are operable. For example, a UK plant health post-transition period operational readiness board—I am sorry, that is such a long phrase—has been established to discuss planning with devolved Administrations. This includes weekly meetings to consider policy issues, including fees. We have been working closely with officials from all the devolved Administrations to design future common frameworks where they are necessary, in line with principles on common frameworks.
I understand the point about working closely with industry. My noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Hayman, raised this. We have maintained regular engagement with the industry—indeed, I have been at a number of the meetings, particularly with the Horticultural Trades Association—on post-transition planning with individual operators and through key stakeholder groups. This included an explanation of the planned charging regime for EU imports, which was followed up with details of the actual changes. Discussions were held through fora such as the plant health advisory forum, the tree health policy group and the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group. In addition, there was frequent bilateral engagement on EU imports with key stakeholders, such as the Horticultural Trades Association, the Fresh Produce Consortium, the National Farmers’ Union, the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association and—I declare my membership—the Royal Horticultural Society, which we have also been working with.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Hayman, my noble friend Lady McIntosh and others more generally raised the important point of how best we can support business with the changes that I think we have all agreed are desirable, given the interceptions that we have identified already, and before this new regime. We have been listening carefully to the concerns of industry to make sure that the new requirements are practical, proportionate and—importantly—risk-based. The import controls on EU-regulated goods are being phased in over 14 months. Regulated goods are not currently being held at the border for import checks in order to help trade flow. All EU high-priority goods may be checked at places of destination until January 2022, minimising that disruption at the border.
On a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the Government have invested £705 million to ensure that our border systems are functional from 1 January and will be fully operational in line with the phasing plan. Operating hours for plant health services have also been adjusted to service business needs, while ensuring that biosecurity standards continue to be maintained and strengthened in ways that support trade and the smooth flow of goods. I think it was my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes who made the point about the importance of biosecurity but also trade flows and supply.
So far as the financial costs raised in this debate, we have been clear that, in line with Treasury rules, the Animal & Plant Health Agency recovers the cost of delivering these services from businesses that use them. Low-risk goods will receive a lower frequency of checks; fees therefore need to be adapted to ensure that there is no over-recovery of costs.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh raised engagement with the EU. There is ongoing and active engagement with the EU on all these matters. She also raised the AIC report. We have regular contact and engagement with the AIC. She also mentioned FERA, which conducts seed testing to support imports and exports. The cost of seed inspections is £128.13 per consignment for a 100% inspection and £6.40 for a 5% inspection rate. Specific seeds are listed in the SI.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, asked about risks from Northern Ireland goods. The island of Ireland is of course a single epidemiological unit. It is really important that we respect both their biosecurity and ours. We have a risk-targeted surveillance programme, which monitors movement of plants from all origins. Again, it is important that we look at this constantly. She also raised the risks to woodlands. We review risks on a continuous basis through the UK plant health risk register and take action in response to new threats, including emergency regulations, such as those for Xylella.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, raised the definition of high-priority plants. High-priority plants are those that pose the greatest potential risk to GB biosecurity. This includes shrubs and plants for planting not intended for final users, host plants of Xylella—for instance, lavender and rosemary—and other plant material for propagation, such as seeds and cuttings. Fees are based on the actual cost and time that it takes to inspect different categories of material.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, also raised costs. The methodology used to calculate these fees was fully consulted on in 2017 and has not changed. Fee income is carefully monitored to ensure that there is no over-recovery or under-recovery. Any discrepancy would normally be rectified in the following year. However, for this year, to ensure that there is no significant over-recovery of costs, APHA and Defra will monitor fee income on a monthly basis, which is important.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, also raised Northern Ireland. In line with the principles of unfettered market access, there is no requirement for export phytosanitary certificates to accompany qualifying Northern Ireland goods moving from Northern Ireland to GB, so there are no associated fees. There will also be no import checks on those qualifying goods entering GB and no additional costs to trade as a result of plant health service delivery by APHA.
I am sorry if that was a very brisk description of some of the questions asked by the Committee. However, I commend this statutory instrument to your Lordships.
That completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 4.50 pm.