Food Industry Bosses Say Trade That Used To Take Hours Is Now Taking Five Days Due To Brexit Checks
It is taking British businesses nearly a week to complete exports to the European Union that previously took just a few hours, the head of one of the UK’s leading trade bodies has told MPs.
Appearing before the Brexit committee on Wednesday morning, leaders of three of the country’s biggest food and retail organisations gave stark evidence of how businesses were coping with new checks at the border after the UK and EU agreed an eleventh-hour, free trade deal last month.
Ian Wright, CEO of the Food & Drink Federation, said that while his industry welcomed the agreement, “nobody has had the chance to work with this deal, to rehearse how to do checks” and that “the enforcers are as clueless about the provisions of the deal as those operating under it.”
He said that food & drink companies had just a matter of hours to prepare for swathes of new paperwork and that even some of the major, well-known retailers were struggling to adapt to the new arrangements – with one “very, very well-known” company which he didn’t name, taking five days to complete what was previously a simple export to the EU.
He told MPs: “One of our biggest companies – a very well-prepared, global company, very very well-known – was trying to do [export] a consignment of product out of the UK into the EU at the start of this week.
“The nature of the paperwork is that there are very many elements to it, and a job which normally took them three hours before the deal was done, has taken five days so far, such is the nature of the impenetrability of the paperwork.”
In an indication of the scale of the challenge facing businesses, Wright predicted that unless Prime Minister Boris Johnson quickly secures “material” changes to the trade deal, “we are going to see the re-engineering of almost all EU-UK and GB-NI supply chains over the next six to nine months.”
The three witnesses warned that disruption to trade, which has resulted in empty shelves in Northern Ireland and Scottish seafood traders losing over £1 million a day, would escalate in the next few weeks as cross-border trade returns to normal levels. Wright pointed out that around 2,000 lorries are currently crossing the short straits, compared to the usual level of around 10,000.
The British Retail Consortium’s Andrew Opie said that while his industry had “pretty much” overcome issues with supplying to Northern Ireland, the province faces “significant disruption” in April if grace periods agreed by UK and EU negotiators are not replaced by a “workable solution.”
The witnesses also told MPs on the committee led by Labour’s Hilary Benn that the UK government had fallen well short of its target of having 50,000 customs agents in place for the end of the Brexit transition period, to help businesses complete new paperwork.
Wright told MPs “we haven’t gotten anywhere near that in terms of provision,” while MakeUK’s Stephen Phipson said “I’m not sure where we have got o as a country now but we were down at the eleven, twelve thousand level the last time I looked at the data.”
Wright added that the customs agents who were helping with post-Brexit checks were working at an “intensity” that they had never experienced before.
“Not only is there a numerical absence, not only do we have a shortage, but we don’t have the accumulated experience of working something that is so intense, for so many people, over a 24/7 period,” he said.