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Imports from EU to GB: Business Preparation

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to prepare businesses for the introduction of new checks and controls on imports into Great Britain from the European Union on 1 October 2021 and 1 January 2022.

My Lords, on 14 September I announced a pragmatic new timetable for introducing certain controls for goods imported from the EU to the UK to give businesses more time to adjust. These controls will be introduced in two stages, on 1 January and 1 July. The Government continue to support all businesses trading with the EU in all sectors, including by putting in place additional staffing, comprehensive guidance for businesses and funding infrastructure to ease border processes.

In February 2020, the Government indicated that full border controls on EU imports would commence on 1 January 2021. In June 2020, the Government announced that many controls would instead be phased in, with mixed deadlines, from April to July 2021. In March 2021, the Government delayed the introduction of this mix of controls further, with phases from October 2021 to March 2022. Earlier this week, just three weeks before the first part of the mix was due to be implemented, the Government announced yet another delay, with phases from January to July 2022. Three times now, businesses have spent time, and no doubt money, preparing for key deadlines, and three times they have seen the can kicked down the road. What steps will the Government take to restore business confidence in their timetable for import controls, and will they compensate businesses for their wasted efforts?

My Lords, it has of course been an extraordinary year to 18 months economically. We have been dealing with a pandemic of unpredictable quality, and it is very clear that there are global strains on supply chains and other aspects of the business environment. That is why we do not apologise for taking this series of pragmatic decisions to respond to the evolving situation. We have no plans to evolve these changes further, and the money that businesses have already spent in dealing with the situation will have been well spent.

Experiences of déjà vu are becoming not uncommon in this Government’s implementation of their own EU plans, despite repeated assurances. This means that Britain will continue to face full checks and controls on its exports, as it did from day 1, while imports will continue with border-free access. Supply chain problems resolve around massive labour shortages. To keep Christmas dinner on the table, will the Government now introduce a 12-month emergency visa implementation? Can the Government give assurances that extending agreements on the provision of veterinary services and updating paper health certificates online will become part of the solution to guard against the potential risk of disease and infections?

My Lords, we face a complex set of interacting economic facts at the moment, and the decision that we took responds to that. We maintain the controls that are right for us, and we now have the powers to control and manage our economy as we see fit. We do not have to do the same thing as the European Union, and indeed, after 1 July, we are unlikely to have exactly the same levels of physical checks as the EU. We monitor the situation in all its respects, and we will take the decisions that are necessary to support the British economy.

My Lords, on 21 July, the Government published their new border operating model, page 8 of which gives a commentary about how they have taken into consideration the impacts of Covid as the reason why they had made the delays already. So what has happened in the intervening seven weeks, between 21 July and now, that allows the Government to think that they are still not ready at their ports?

My Lords, it has been very evident over the early autumn that there are challenges with maintaining supply chains, and these are not limited to the UK. There are shortages of HGV drivers across Europe and beyond, and there has been a very significant increase in costs globally in the shipping of goods. These strains have become evident over the summer, and we have taken a pragmatic decision to respond to that and do what we can support British business in these circumstances.

My Lords, I welcome this delay, and indeed I hope that it becomes permanent. EU goods are safe, and the food is wholesome; we have been using them and eating it for 40 years. Trade rules do not need to be reciprocal, and, if the European Union chooses stupidly to impose upon its consumers the penalties of protectionism, there is no need for us to reciprocate. Does my noble friend agree that it is about time that the British Government were setting a free trade example to the European Union, and indeed showing it that such an approach could be applied with benefit on the UK’s border with Ireland, in place of the undemocratic protocol?

My Lords, I think our position on the protocol is well known, and we may come to it later. Of course, my noble friend is absolutely right to say that it makes sense for us to put in place the controls that are right for us. Of course, there are controls—customs controls came in on 1 January—but we do not have to replicate everything that the European Union does. We intend to have a world-class border by 2025, with proportionate checks based on risk. That is the right way to proceed.

My Lords, yesterday, my noble friend Lord Adonis shared with us a six year-old photograph of a very slimline David Frost saying that the whisky industry needed the “fewest possible barriers” in order to sell into European markets. That is what business still wants, but the Government do not seem to listen, despite the fact that surely they must be involved in the design of the procedures and not just told at the end, “This is what you must implement”. Next week, almost a year after the trade agreement was signed, the Minister’s consultation on engagement with business closes. Can he assure the House that he will respond rapidly to that and put in place a robust system of consultation with business, unions and consumers?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. She is of course correct that our consultation on involving industry and civil society more generally in the implementation of the trade and co-operation agreement closes shortly. We will of course respond soon: we need to get these bodies up and running before the end of the year, and it is absolutely our intention to do so. As a general principle, it is right that the fewest possible controls are always best—that is clear. Of course, we are not always in control of the controls that the European Union puts in place. We believe that the benefits of being outside the customs union and in control of our own trade policy very much outweigh any disadvantages.

Of course, the greatest free market was the single market, which we very sadly left. My noble friend negotiated very successfully the trade and co-operation agreement. Will he use his good offices to ensure that this world-class border, which we would all welcome, will lead to a single portal for documentation that will be largely online? If he finds that we have trained most of the EU drivers that have left and gone back to their respective countries, could we at least give them a short-term visa to come back and help us out over the Christmas period—the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, suggested that we might need this?

My Lords, I agree of course with my noble friend that an aspiration for a world-class border is very important; that is where we intend to go. Indeed, we hope that the so-called single trade window —a single portal—will be a very significant part of that, as we take this forward. As regards HGV drivers, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has, on a couple of occasions, set out our plans to make it easier to increase the supply of drivers, and I am sure that that will bear fruit very soon.

Last weekend, I left the United Kingdom for the first time since the end of transition period. I went to France, and I got in very easily: I showed my passport and my vaccine pass, and that was it. When I came back, it looked like a world-class border when I got to Stansted, where I just showed my electronic passport, but, to get there, I had to fill in numerous forms that the airline was expected to verify. Are the Government proposing to keep that sort of regulation going? Surely that is a deterrent to tourism and other people coming to the United Kingdom, which surely a world-class country would be wanting, not trying to discourage?

I am sure that we all share the aspiration for borders that are as freely flowing as possible. Obviously, we are dealing with the consequences of a pandemic, and that requires controls and processes that, in an ideal world, we would not want to be in place. This matter is very much debated elsewhere. I repeat my point that we wish to see goods and people flow as freely as possible, consistent with maintaining responsible border controls of all kinds. That is what we intend to put in place.