MPs demand 'clarity' on latest border-check delays

Efra committee points to "poor planning and delivery" as it says latest milestone faces sixth delay "in all but name"
Photo: Peter Titmuss/Alamy Stock Photo

MPs have demanded answers on the long-delayed implementation of the government’s new post-Brexit import model and criticised “poor planning” of its implementation.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has written to environment secretary Steve Barclay seeking “clarity” on the timeline for the next major milestone of the Border Target Operating Model, after the FT reported that the deadline will not be met.

Plans for the BTOM were laid out in the government’s 2025 Border Strategy, which was published in December 2020. It was initially supposed to be introduced in phases throughout 2021 and promised to “ensure that the GB-EU border continues to function effectively” after the Brexit transition period ended.

After a series of delays, the government set out “three major milestones” for implementing the BTOM last August: 31 January, 30 April and 31 October 2024. As of tomorrow, Defra is set to introduce checks on medium and high-risk plant and animal imports from the EU, known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) border controls.

However, the Financial Times reported on 18 April that the government would not in fact “turn on” the checks on 30 April because border systems were not fully ready and doing so would cause delays.

A government spokesperson said at the time that it was "confident we have sufficient capacity and capability across all points of entry to handle the volume and type of expected checks" – but Efra committee chair Sir Robert Goodwill said it appeared the deadline "will not be implemented in the manner or timeframe that stakeholders and this Committee expected".

In his letter to Barclay, Efra committee chair Sir Robert Goodwill said the MPs were “concerned that this is a sixth delay to the implementation of SPS import checks in all but name”.

“There is broad consensus that a clearly communicated, phased implementation of SPS checks with distinct, achievable milestones is a strategic and pragmatic approach to change. We are concerned that your approach, if as reported, has resulted from poor planning and delivery of the model,” he said.

He said that “despite the government’s statements to the contrary it is clear that ports and businesses are facing further uncertainty and have once again expressed their confusion and frustration over the delivery of these essential border controls”.

He urged Defra to “urgently” communicate the altered arrangements to businesses and the public “to build confidence in our incoming border controls and reduce disruption”. 

He stressed that concerns about “inconsistent messaging and last-minute announcements” from Defra predate the FT’s revelation about the latest delay.

He noted that in a hearing on 26 March, the committee had told Barclay about ports’ frustrations that they had still not received “essential” information from Defra for the April phase of the BTOM – including requirements for border-control post staffing, opening hours and pricing regimes.

The information was published on 3 April – only 27 days before the April deadline.

Defra permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein told the committee at the same hearing that the government had “a lot of confidence that [ports] will have the capacity in place to manage the checks that we bring in in April” and that “the intention in April is to take a light-touch approach as we bed it in”.

“The hearing would have been an ideal opportunity to outline any revised plans for a ‘graduated’ approach to the April measures,” Goodwill said.

“If the decision was taken after this point, given our ongoing interest in the matter and your department’s commitment to provide monthly updates on the model’s implementation, my committee would expect to have been informed about these changes at the earliest opportunity.”

He asked Barclay to set out what the “graduated” or “light touch” approach will look like; what percentage of new SPS checks on imports will begin on 30 April; any barriers to implementing checks; and the impact of any delays to the expected checks on goods being imported from non-EU countries.

"In responding we hope that concerned stakeholders and members of the public will benefit from an improved awareness of, and confidence in, the level of biosecurity at our borders," he added.

Goodwill also asked Barclay to share a "detailed breakdown" of the phased approach to implementing BTOM, and a copy of the presentation seen by the FT.

The Efra Committee chair also used the letter to chastise Defra for failing to meet its commitment, made last June , to provide monthly updates on progress with delivering the controls set out in the BTOM.

"We have received one such update (in October 2023). At this critical stage of the implementation process, I ask that Defra recommits to providing monthly updates in writing starting from 1 June for the remainder of 2024," he said.

A government spokesperson said: “Taking a pragmatic approach to introducing our new border checks minimises disruption, protects our biosecurity and benefits everyone – especially traders.

“There has been extensive engagement with businesses over the past year – with our approach welcomed by several trade associations and port authorities.

“We are confident we have sufficient capacity and capability across all points of entry to handle the volume and type of expected checks.”

Read the most recent articles written by Beckie Smith - Chisholm to become UK chair of energy giant EDF

Share this page