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Barclay questioned by EFRA on funding for Dover illegal meat import checks

27th Mar 2024 / By Alistair Driver

Defra Secretary Steve Barclay was asked to explain the Department's stance on funding checks for illegal meat imports when he appeared in front of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Tuesday. 

Dover coach contentsPrior to the meeting, EFRA published a damning letter to it from Lucy Manzano, head of Dover port health & public protection, which suggested Defra had misled the committee of MPs in its response in February to questions on illegal meat import checks at the port and the decision to move legal customs checks to a new inland site from April.

“I have to say it’s one of the most excoriating letters I’ve ever seen in relation to what a minister has said and put in writing,” Labour MP Barry Gardiner told Mr Barclay during the hearing.

In her letter to EFRA Ms Manzano wrote: “I am disappointed to observe that the letter to you does not answer the questions asked, contains many points of inaccuracy, and includes statements that are both confused and misleading as to the current position at the frontline and the position as planned by Defra post April 2024.”

Since new rules banning imports of pork products over 2kg not produced to EU commercial standards were introduced in September 2022 as an African swine fever control, DPHA and Border Force UK have seized around 75 tonnes of illegally imported meat at the Port of Dover, the vast majority of it, pork from countries affected by ASF. It is widely accepted that this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Defra told DPHA in December that it was cutting DPHA’s budget for this work from £3.2m to £1.2m in 2024/25, starting in April, and then to nothing in 2025/26. The council says it needs £4m to perform the work, which has also been extended to Coquelles on the other side of the Channel, further stretching resources.

The NPA has expressed deep concern over the cuts and has urged Defra to reconsider its position

Defra, in its written response to EFRA and then in Tuesday’s hearing, has tried to justify the cuts by saying they are a response to moving the border control point (BCP) for commercial meat checks from Bastion Point at Dover to a new dedicated site at Sevington 22 miles inland to Sevington under the new Border Target Operating Model (BTOM) from April.

In its letter to EFRA, Defra Minister Lord Douglas-Miller claimed the funding for DPHA was only temporary until the BTOM was in place, and repeatedly stressed that Border Force was ‘responsible for the management of illegal imports’, while DPHA officers ‘support’ it when illegal imports are identified.

The Defra Minister said the Department has advised PHAs that they are expected to ‘introduce charging to recover costs incurred when dealing with illegal imports to supplement core funding’.

However, in her letter to EFRA, Ms Manzano said Defra’s response to questions about funding for DPHA are ‘confused and muddy the water’.” They do not accurately represent the position at the Dover Border,” she said.

She insisted that the £3.6m provided by Defra for 2023/24 was ‘to complete ASF checks at the Port of Dover only’, adding that Defra had provided no impact assessments of its withdrawal of the funding.

She also strongly refuted Defra’s claim that Border Force is responsible for the management of illegal imports and dismissed the suggestion that Dover could tintroduce charging to recover costs incurred when dealing with illegal imports. 

Defra response

Tamara Finkelstein Steve Barclay EFRAAsked by Mr Gardiner about DPHA’s comments on the funding cuts for ASF checks at Dover, Mr Barclay said: “It is the case that because dealing with the legal imports of food has moved from Dover, that has led to a reduction in the funding to Dover, who continue to be responsible for the illegal controls and port risk checks. So, Dover continues to be the front line for that.

“But, where through the health certificates, advance information  isprovided, on a risk-based basis, that is taken away from Dover. Dover port authority is not content with that decision but there are very good reasons for that.”

Ms Finkelstein said DPHA’s funding will be cut to zero for checks on legal imports. She added: “But they will get funding to continue their work with Border Force on some of those illegal imports, so I think there’s something slightly misleading on what you have had provided to you. But Dover is unhappy about the decision that Sevington will be main way in which legal imports will be checked.”

Neither of the Defra figures gave an answer when it was suggested by Mr Gardiner that claims DPHA could recover its costs for illegal meat checks were ‘misguided’.