Michael Gove is set for a showdown meeting with the head of the Food and Drink Federation over the Government’s “terrifying” lack of planning for trade after Brexit.
Ian Wright, director general of the body which represents the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, is planning to collar the Defra Secretary at next week’s Tory party conference to raise his industry’s concerns.
With the UK set to leave the EU’s customs union after Brexit, there is risk of stringent goods checks at Britain’s borders – something which could add severe delays to import and export times.
Chancellor Philip Hammond revealed earlier this month that UK ports would grind to halt if lorries had to spend mere minutes undergoing customs checks.
Speaking at a Labour conference fringe meeting on Monday evening, Wright demanded “certainty” on the future customs arrangements for the UK
He said: “It really is terrifying that less than 18 months from the Brexit date that was supposed to be being worked to, there is no customs system that could possibly absorb imports and exports from and to the European Union.
“That is just a scandal and a disgrace, and when you have the head of Customs and Excise telling the parliamentary committee that if we don’t have a transition there will be chaos, you know you’re in deep trouble.
“We need the Government to address that very urgently and I shall be saying that to Michael Gove next week at the Tory party conference.”
Wright, whose organisation represents 6,815 businesses employing 400,000 people in the UK, welcomed Theresa May’s plan to secure a transition period for after March 2019, but warned “it is simply kicking the can down the road.”
He said: “What we need is the Government to actually tell us what it wants.”
In August, the Government released a position paper calling for a “highly streamlined customs arrangement” or a “customs partnership” with the EU after Brexit.
Both of those proposals were based on the UK and EU agreeing a free trade deal.
However, the customs processing system due to be online at UK ports in March 2019, the Customs Declaration Service (CDS), is not predicted to be able to handle the vast increase in checks.
In July, the National Audit Office discovered that even if the CDS was delivered by its planned date of January 2019, it has never been tested to handle the capacity needed just two months later.
Even in tests it has only been used to process 180million declarations a year – far short of the 255million the UK is predicted to get through.
Appearing before the Lords Economic Affairs Committee on September 12, the Chancellor was asked if the capacity of UK ports were “adequate” to handle the increase in activity.
“No it’s clearly not,” replied Hammond. “Anyone who’s visited Dover will know that Dover operates as a flow-through port and volumes of trade at Dover could not accommodated if goods had to be held for inspection even, I suspect, if they were held for minutes, it would still impede the operation of the port.
“Roll-on, roll-off traffic at Dover is predicated on trucks rolling off a ferry immediately, [going] out of the port and the ferry reloading and departing pretty rapidly – Ryanair style turnaround times.”
Hammond also revealed the EU was not even willing to enter into discussions about a future customs system with the UK – even on a technical level.
“We have had less engagement than we would like with our customs counterparts with our immediate neighbours both at a technical level and to discuss possible deal scenario technical challenges and no deal scenario technical challenges.”
When pressed on how “frictionless” the future customs arrangements with the EU would be, Hammond replied: “It may that it cannot be as frictionless as it is now in a long-term settlement because of a desire to negotiate third party trade deals.
“The design challenge is to use technology to minimise the friction to a level that is acceptable to business.”