The government has denied reports that post-Brexit checks on EU goods “won’t be ‘turned on’” from the end of the month

UK border

UK border checks on European plants and cut flowers will start on 30 April

A statement from Defra on Friday (19 April) refutes media reports claiming physical border checks on EU plant and food imports will be “turned off”.

“As has been previously outlined, we will be commencing checks from 30 April,” the statement said. “Our enforcement approach will be graduated to help traders to comply.”

The statement goes on to say that the UK government has full confidence that the facilities, infrastructure and systems at the border will be ready for the 30 April implementation date.

Border checks to start on 30 April

“Checks are commencing from 30 April and, as we have always said, the medium and high-risk goods posing the greatest biosecurity risk are being prioritised as we build up to full check rates and high levels of compliance,” a government spokesperson said.

“Taking a pragmatic approach to introducing our new border checks minimises disruption, protects our biosecurity and benefits everyone – especially traders.”

Defra’s statement came after a report by the Financial Times claimed Defra had told port authorities it would not “’turn on’ critical health and safety checks for EU imports” because of the risk of “significant disruption”.

Officials reportedly outlined a plan to prevent queues of lorries entering the UK from the bloc, which included significantly reducing the number of physical checks on plant and food products due to begin at the end of the month, over fears the new border systems would not be fully prepared.

Graduated approach to minimise disruption

“We are confident we have sufficient capacity and capability across all points of entry to handle the volume and type of expected checks. It is important to remember the cost of our border checks is negligible compared to the impact of a major disease outbreak on our economy and farmers,” the Defra spokesperson said in the Friday statement.

Defra said its border enforcement approach follows extensive engagement with businesses – including regularly contacting 30,000 importers with up-to-date information, delivering over 50 webinars to thousands of businesses and working with major supermarkets and their suppliers to provide training.

Speaking today (22 April) to the FPJ to clarify the situation, Fresh Produce Consortium CEO Nigel Jenney said: “In simple terms, the 30 April implementation date to our understanding has not changed and will not change for the products it applies to at that date.

“What I believe Defra is explaining is that, from that date onwards, they intend to have a phased incremental implementation of the levels of inspections that would be incurred to ensure that things will work seamlessly from day one onwards.

“From the end of this month, therefore, this legislation will apply to plants and cut flowers from Europe.”

No checks yet for EU fruit and veg

Jenney explained that fruit and veg from Europe are currently not included in the 30 April implementation.

However, he said the FPC does envisage that an announcement will be made in the near future, and that “perhaps” EU fruit and veg will be included towards the end of 2024.

“We originally believed that fruit and veg from EU specifically would be excluded from the government’s post-Brexit border strategy. However, earlier this year we were told at short notice that that wouldn’t be the case, and that there would be what they called ’a temporary easement’.

“We envisage some fruit and veg will be considered medium-risk later this year and will be subject to border inspection at a lower level frequency of inspections.

“However, we are working hard to get a definitive list of which fruit and veg, and at what levels of inspection the government intends applying later this year. But that list is not definitive.”

The FPC believes that roughly 50 per cent of the volume of fresh produce the UK buys from Europe will be considered medium-risk. So for those business importing mixed consignments and who also use groupage, this will be a major challenge.

“The real concern we have are the cost of those inspections and the delays that will be incurred if certain government facilities are chosen for those inspections,” says Jenney.

Common User Charge

“The common user charge has now been announced by the government. And to our total frustration the consultation was based on a cost per consignment, whereas the actual confirmation is based on cost per commodity, up to the first five commodities in that declaration.

”In other words, we expected the fees to be roughly between £20 and £40. But for five commodities in the consignment they will be £145, which is a 500 per cent increase that industry will be required to pay [most consignments will have five or more different commodities].

”If you are choosing to use the ro-ro ports of Dover or the tunnel, these fees apply simply because you have imported the consignments. It doesn’t have to be physically inspected to incur those fees. It’s the fact that you’ve used that port and ultimately, if called for inspection, you have used the government border control facility at Shevington in Kent,” Jenney explains.

”If as a small business I import 100 consignments, which I would in several weeks, I would incur 100 charges of £145. So in other words, I would be charged £14,500 every 100 consignments I imported to the UK. If I am importing cut flowers, it is a 3 per cent inspection level, so it is £4,800 per physical inspection. So it is just extortionate.

”From our point of view this is hugely expensive. It is unaffordable. It will drive food inflation and ultimately this is a blatant tax on our industry by the UK government.”

Control points

Jenney explains that goods can arrive through other UK port where the common user charges fees do not apply.

”We have helped develop what are called control points and there are about 40 of those around the country. And they are commercially run facilities that allow the goods to be presented by that business for the official inspector to arrive and inspect as they are declared and as they arrive,” he says.

”However, literally a couple of weeks ago, the government announced that the government officials that would need to inspect these goods would no longer be available after 7pm in the evening for most control points.”

Since most European fresh produce arrives throughout the night, businesses are left with two choices, Jenney says. “Either a business has to wait until the next day, which is simply ludicrous because they would miss their market delivery or my retail delivery. Or, they are forced to use the highly expensive government control facility at Shevington.”

Jenney says the FPC is lobbying Defra and the Cabinet Office to change these proposals.

”I am hoping we will get some advice from Government this week,” he says. ”We are working very hard to say, look your current proposals are not fit for purpose. And in the short-term we urgently need control points to have official inspectors available when the goods arrive from Europe.

”We estimate there’s over 1m consignments annually coming from Europe. So if you add all these fees together, you are talking about a liability to our sector of over £200m unless government reconsiders their position. As we speak, it hasn’t as yet.”