Government must seek out our guidance on UK borders, says logistics experts
Senior industry figures have called for the Government to seek out their guidance to ensure that trade keeps moving at the Channel Ports if the UK crashes out of the EU with no Brexit deal.
Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), said ministers should gather advice from key stakeholders about what preparations must be made at the border ahead of leaving the EU.
He was joined by John Keefe, the director of public affairs at Eurotunnel, who said there has not been “anywhere near” enough contact between the Government and industry bodies about this critical issue.
The remarks were made during a panel discussion in the Houses of Parliament, chaired by Tory MP for Dover and Deal Charlie Elphicke, titled ‘Brexit – ready on day one to keep trade moving’.
Fellow panellists Mark Johnson, international forwarding director at Kuehne + Nagel; and Tony Smith, former director general at the UK border force, also called for greater stakeholder engagement from government.
Labour MP Caroline Flint, who attended the discussion, asked whether the industry representatives were “getting the ears” of senior officials in Whitehall.
Mr Burnett responded: “I don’t think that we’ve had enough of an open door from Government to guide and advise. Yes, there has been dialogue, but has there been dialogue with the right department and the right people? I don’t think so. Are the right people listening? Probably not.
“The people around the table here are people that have got practical views and this is about the practical side to Brexit – the people that live and breathe transport, logistics and distribution day in and day out.
“Government should be coming to us and asking what our views are and what our advice is.”
Mr Keefe added: “I don’t think we got a very good hearing to begin with. I think by force of willpower, we have got ourselves in front of the right people, at the very top of the negotiations and across government now. I think there is better dialogue, but I still don’t think it’s anywhere near what it needs to be.
“I think Government should be inviting key players in the industry into more forums like this to exchange directly with MPs and ministers on this subject about the practicalities of what it is going to mean. I think if we did that, we could move a lot of thinking forward and we could make this into something which we want it to be. This is a genuine opportunity for progress. I think so far the Government has hidden behind the negotiation and hasn’t come out far enough to engage fully with the industry.
Karen Wheeler, who was appointed Director General for Border Co-ordination at HM Revenue and Customs in July, said she would seek follow up conversations with the panellists and improve engagement going forward.
NO DEAL BREXIT
The forum, which took place on Tuesday evening in the Houses of Parliament, was convened to discuss the permutations of leaving the European Union without a deal at the end of March 2019 on UK trade.
Mr Burnett, who kicked off proceedings, said the single biggest issue for the RHA and our members on Brexit relates to the establishment of a new customs system.
He called for ministers to “simplify” Brexit and assess what agreements can be made now with the UK’s EU counterparts regarding the flow of goods and services to ensure a less disruptive transition.
“I think what we have to do, is we have to start considering what are the basic handshakes and principles as we move product across borders that need to be addressed in this process. And how can we make sure that’s systemised, automated, and in an operational timeframe to protect our trading position in the UK,” he said.
Mr Keefe said that the Brexit vote does not pose “that much of a problem” regarding the flow of goods, “because we were already looking at issues relating to improving the way that the border operates, introducing new technologies, getting things like advanced declaration of goods done so that traffic could move through”.
He argued that the growth of UK and EU economies already requires Channel Ports to be “better at doing all sorts of border processing in order to facilitate that trade in the future”.
“Brexit could be a bit of a lever to help us get some of the technology we need, to move things forward, to make sure that the traffic flows smoothly between trading partners as the volume grows,” he said.
And he said that warnings the Port of Calais would be shut in the event of a no deal Brexit are a “bit alarmist”. He argued it is in “everybody’s interests” to keep goods moving.
Tony Smith, the former head of the UK border force, called on ministers to take “political courage” to make quick decisions about the kind of customs arrangements they would like to see post-Brexit, and then reach out to EU counterparts.
“I do think we really need to work on those bilateral relationships to make sure that we’ve got some agreement about how we can keep everything moving at the end of March 2019,” he said.
Mark Johnson of Kuehne + Nagel, the global transport and logistics company, said the firm is prepared to “cover what we need to cover as we come out of the EU”.
But, he added, the company needs oversight of the Government’s vision before it can take action.
Tory MP and chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Bernard Jenkin, was among the senior parliamentarians to attend the event, along with his Conservative colleague Crispin Blunt.
Mr Jenkin asked the panel, given that there is going to be a customs frontier post-Brexit, “what is the minimum you need to have in place in order to cope” after the UK leaves the EU at the end of March 2019.
Mr Johnson said that the existing Customs Declaration Services programme, which collects duties and taxes and applies to goods originating from non-EU countries, could be updated relatively easily to include trade from EU member states post-Brexit.
But he added: “It’s whether it can accommodate the capacity from around 150 million declarations today to 350 million per annum post-Brexit. That for me is the challenge.”
Considering the response, Mr Jenkins said the “optimum solution” on day one of Brexit is a “soft customs frontier” that would allow the flow of goods to continue.
“All the information is there, it shouldn’t be very complicated. Given that actually on the rule of origin question, all the products that are being made in the UK will be exactly the same products as they are on the day before Brexit as the day after Brexit, nothing much is going to change that’s going to be a great threat to any manufacturer or country from the European Union,” he said.
“We’re not going suddenly going to be flooding France with cheap imports from outer space. There is time to build up the capacity of these systems, after we have established the customs frontier.”
Following a question from an audience member warning about a shortfall in the number of lorry drivers, and the industry’s reliance on using workers from the EU, the RHA’s Mr Burnett warned the issue is “getting worse”.
He recognised that there is a need to encourage Britons to take up lorry driving, with a number of drivers from the EU leaving due to uncertainty about their status and the falling pound.
But he warned that the time it takes to complete apprenticeships, and the fact that driving a lorry is not considered highly skilled under the Government’s definition, means work needs to be urgently carried out to avoid a shortfall of workers.
Wrapping up proceedings, Mr Elphicke, the MP for Dover and Deal, concluded: “The decisions that are made, as we leave the European Union, need to make sure that people are not disadvantaged in their daily lives, that trade continues to flow, that we may be breaking up but we stay the very best of friends and that we put our people first in all that we do.”