Richard North, 07/09/2021  

Northern Ireland is creeping up the agenda again, with the government announcing further delays to some Irish Sea border checks. This marks an indefinite extension of the grace period and a clear breach of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

As yet, there has been no official response from the EU, but the Telegraph says the European Commission has intimated that it will not pursue legal action once the current grace period expires. Nevertheless, it "reserves its rights" to act in future.

The recently ennobled David Frost (who didn't give any money to Prince Charles's charity fund) says the UK's move is "necessary" to provide space for further "potential discussions" with the EU. So we're back on the same old treadmill, despite the EU repeatedly refusing to entertain the idea of formal renegotiations.

The Commission does say it is open to the idea of further talks, though, but as we wait and wonder, there can hardly be anyone with the pulse who is not bored rigid with this whole affair. There must eventually be some sort of resolution, but it's obviously not going to happen any time soon. Perhaps HMG is planning on boring the "colleagues" to death.

On the other hand, while the NI situation drifts into somnambulance, the import scene from the EU proper might be about to warm up. Checks on incoming goods, delayed since we left the EU, are progressively to come into force from the beginning of next month.

It is not at all clear whether the UK will enforce these checks, but companies are working on the basis that the current programme is to go ahead. And this has Marks & Spencer warning that a food import crisis is looming.

Picked up by The Times, with elements of the story repeated by the BBC, we learn that some EU member states and many traders are not ready for the changes.

One of M&S's concerns is that, in some member states, the offices that issue export health certificates, which are required for trade in animal food products, only operate during office hours from Monday to Friday. It is not said whether France is one of these, but in a country where you find restaurants closing for lunch, this would not surprise me.

The details available have been plucked from a letter which has been sent by M&S to its suppliers. The company states: "Modern food systems rely on importing food seven days a week, so this working pattern will cause significant disruption to that import schedule and exacerbate the HGV driver shortage".

The retailer has called on the British government and the EU to show some "common sense", while pushing both sides to take a "more practical and modern approach" to border controls by digitising the paperwork required to ship food across the Channel.

Its proposed solution is for a digitally enabled "Facilitated Movement Scheme" that still meets all of the EU standards. George Wright, commercial director at M&S Food, says: "The goal of such a scheme would be to simplify the documentation burden, for both UK and EU businesses, whilst still demonstrating standards are being met".

Behind this lies M&S's worries that neither the EU nor the UK has enough people in place to check all of the paperwork that will be generated. With 25 percent of all of Britain's food coming from Europe, it is "entirely unrealistic" to expect that all the food shipped to Britain from the continent would "pass seamlessly through EU and UK ports".

The problem is, of course, is that while the UK can set up its own import systems, it has absolutely no control over whether EU member states carry out the preparatory works to enable traders to conform with the requirements.

When it comes to the idea of a "Facilitated Movement Scheme", the EU has its own plans for digitising the information required by customs and the "official control" system with deals with SPS matters. It would thus be for the UK to tap into the EU system and harmonise with its requirements. So far, the UK government has not signalled any willingness to do this, and it would take many years to get a harmonised scheme up and running.

What must also be recalled is that the UK system of SPS checks is implemented by local authority port health services, entirely separate from the central government run customs service. And while port health works to unified rules, implementation depends on resources allocated and staffing availability, over which central government does not have direct control.

That is not to say, however, that local authorities are not pulling their weight. Recently, from a long article, we saw how North East Lincolnshire Council was rapidly expanding its port health team and working with colleagues in Norway, Iceland and the Faroes in preparation for new trading rules coming into force.

This is understandable because the port of Grimsby and Immingham lie within the local authority area. Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese fish imports are crucial to Grimsby's seafood industry – one of the largest processing and trading clusters in the northern hemisphere, employing 6,000 people. Iceland alone supplies almost 75 percent of the fish sold on the town's market.

A significant proportion of fish supplies from those countries are imported to the UK via Immingham, where import controls will be implemented at the new border control posts.

Commercial regulatory manager, Neil Beeken, explained that his existing team of 20 officers, covering food safety, port health and trading standards, had been expanded to over 50, for both export health certificate provision and upcoming import controls.

"We have worked closely with importers and exporters during the transition period and since then to make sure they understood what was required of them", he says. "This included training on new systems, issuing guidance documentation and making them aware of import controls".

Beeken also says that his team has worked with a local business to create an export logistics hub – a facility in which smaller consignments/loads can be collected from around the UK and consolidated in one location, enabling small to medium sized enterprises to continue exporting by sharing the costs with others.

The team has also worked with other local authorities and carried out trial runs with a border control post in France to check and review the process for issuing.

The local authority, though, is taking a considerable financial risk. While central government has paid some of the expansion costs, ongoing expenses will have to be covered by fees charged for inspections. If central government backs off from its commitment to roll out the new system from 1 October, and delays its introduction, the local authority will be seriously out of pocket.

Across the Humber estuary, Hull's port health chief is, like M&S, also warning that the new border checks will add to food supply chain problems, and it is not only the document checks. There will be a range of physical checks to deal with as well.

This is Laurence Dettman, chief port health officer at the Hull and Goole Port Health Authority, who also complains that the government had underestimated the scale of EU food imports requiring checks and inspections when it initially provided funding for port health authorities to recruit more staff to deal with the extra workload.

Dettman says: "The original volumetric data supplied to ports and port health authorities in 2020 on predicted numbers of EU import checks was used in plans for construction of the new Border Control Posts and for additional resources required by port health authorities, with our successful funding bid also based on those estimated volumes.

He adds: "With greater knowledge, based on actual consignment volumes from EU to UK since 1January 2021, new HMRC data now predicts the expected volumes of relevant EU consignments arriving at our two Border Control Posts will be far greater than originally envisaged, thus placing additional pressures on the authority and port operators to have sufficient resources in place".

Like its counterpart across the estuary, the port health team, based in Hull, has been increased. It is being tripled to around 40 staff, including veterinary surgeons, to operate the new regime. Dettman too is relying on a new port health charging regime to fund the new checks.

And while his aim is "to streamline our checks as much as possible to minimize delay and disruption to food supplies", he believes it is naïve to envisage that there will be no disturbance to trade flows and long-established "just in time" deliveries.

It rather looks therefore, as if Brexit may be entering on a new and interesting phase, timed neatly to disrupt the flow of goods in the build-up to Christmas. And if the government doesn't go ahead on 1 October and dumps unrecoverable costs on local authorities, by the time the regime is reintroduced, there may be no authorities available to run it.

Did anyone say that Brexit was going to be a slow burn?

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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