There are not enough vets and portal inspectors at the four NI ports to manage the current raft of inspections as a result of the NI Protocol, never mind future controls that could be necessary once grace periods end, MLAs were told last Thursday.
Briefing the Stormont Agriculture committee, NI chief vet Dr Robert Huey welcomed the decision taken by the UK government to extend the so-called grace period for retail goods, but warned that long-term solutions must still be found.
That could come in the form of a Digital Assurance Scheme being worked on by the UK government. In the meantime, retailers can still make use of the Scheme for Temporary Agri-food Movements to NI (STAMNI), which has now been extended from 1 April to 1 October. Under STAMNI retailers can move products of plant and animal origin without the need for official Export Health Certificates (EHCs) to accompany a consignment.
At the ports, DAERA is responsible for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls (documentary, identity and physical checks) relating to plant- and animal-based products.
That’s a huge challenge. That’s approaching the same number of CHEDp checks that are done for the entire EU
An importer bringing in these goods must pre-notify the movement at least 24-hours in advance on the EU IT system (TRACES NT) and create a Common Health Entry Document (CHED). For animal-based products a CHEDp is required.
Huey estimates that around 1,350 CHEDps for retail goods are being created for shipments coming to NI each week. But if there was no grace period for retailers, it would mean a CHED is potentially required for numerous individual food products on a load. So rather than officials doing checks on 1,350 CHEDs each week, it could be closer to 20,000 to 30,000, suggested Huey.
Our population (in NI) is under half of 1% of the EU, yet documentary checks would represent one-fifth of the equivalent documentation right across the EU
“That’s a huge challenge. That’s approaching the same number of CHEDp checks that are done for the entire EU. Here is what I am currently being asked to do by the NI Protocol, with my current 12 vets. That is not going to work,” he said.
But even with the grace period for retailers, DAERA are being swamped by the number of inspections required to meet current requirements. In the eight weeks from 4 January, staff completed 13,629 documentary checks, DAERA Permanent Secretary Dr Denis McMahon told the committee last week.
“Our population (in NI) is under half of 1% of the EU, yet documentary checks would represent one-fifth of the equivalent documentation right across the EU. We in NI process documentation on a scale larger than all other entire countries across the EU. The burden of work is stretching us to the limit,” said McMahon.
With just 12 vets and around 46 portal staff, the Department has not been able to do all the physical checks required in EU law.
“Last week we carried out 137 physical checks, and the week before it was 206. But that only equates to 30-40% of what we should be doing. We haven’t got enough staff. To deliver what they are delivering is miraculous,” claimed Huey.
Permanent facilities pushed back to 2022
Despite an initial estimate that permanent facilities for DAERA staff to use at the four NI ports would be ready by the summer of 2021, this has now been pushed back to beyond March 2022, DAERA officials told the Agriculture Committee at Stormont last Thursday.
“We have been working to a ridiculous timescale to deliver this,” claimed DAERA permanent secretary Denis McMahon.
We are working in interim facilities
He said that initial designs for buildings had been recently reviewed, to reflect the most up-to-date information regarding the amount of goods flowing through the ports. To build the facilities is likely to cost £38.2m, with a further spend of £6.1m to cover staffing, IT, etc.
“We are working in interim facilities. They are superb, but they are tents – refurbished old buildings,” added chief vet Robert Huey.
While contractors have been appointed, and ready to put kit and machinery on to sites, this has been temporarily suspended due to the intervention of former Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons. He asked his officials to stop this work at the end of February, and also called a halt to recruitment of new inspection staff.
McMahon explained to MLAs last week that he was waiting on legal advice on whether he could accept that intervention. “We work under the direction of Ministers, but always within the law,” he said.
“The Minister’s instruction (to stop recruitment) – it has had an impact on morale – people thought the cavalry were coming over the hill,” said Huey.
The UK government has confirmed that it is temporarily easing rules around the movement of plants and used agricultural machinery from Britain to NI.
For used agricultural machinery, under the terms of the NI Protocol a plant health (phytosanitary) certificate was required to accompany each machine. This certificate, issued by authorities in Britain, verifies that it is free of soil, and costs around £200 (not including the cost of thoroughly cleaning the equipment).
The need for a certificate has been dropped in one of a number of unilateral announcements by the UK government last week relating to the NI Protocol.
Used machines should be cleaned “to limit the amount of soil and plant debris” (a requirement that existed pre-2021), but “it can still be moved if small amounts of soil remain” states UK government guidance.
For plants and plant-based products, under the new rules from 1 January 2021 they must be free from soil. The UK government has decided to amend this, and bulbs or vegetables from Britain can now move to NI even if they still have soil attached.
In addition, plants that have been grown in soil can be moved, provided they are coming from an authorised business in Britain.
“We will continue to work closely with the EU on how we can develop appropriate, risk-based arrangements for the long term,” government guidance reads.