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Brexit Border Chiefs Left in The Dark Hours Before New Checks Kick In

Britain is meant to be launching the “most advanced border in the world” this week. It doesn’t feel like that to the people running it.


Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/Antonio Olmos

With implementation of the second — and most critical — phase of the UK’s five-times-delayed post-Brexit border regime commencing on Tuesday, ports are still being left in the dark on crucial details by the British government.


Physical checks on EU animal and plant imports to the island nation are meant to begin April 30 at specially designated border control posts. It’s all part of the government’s “Border Target Operating Model,” needed now it’s left the bloc’s single market.

 

But with just hours to go, commercial port operators — many of whom have pumped millions of pounds of their own cash into setting up high-spec inspection facilities — have serious concerns about how exactly they’re meant to recoup the costs of running them.


An exasperated senior port executive, granted anonymity to speak freely, said: “It’s enormously frustrating that after literally years — a period where the physical facilities at ports have been ready and at a time when ports are feeling the wrath of customers for charges that are not of the ports doing — we’re still waiting for government to deliver at one minute to midnight.”


Crucial detail missing

Under the new border system, selected importers will have to submit animal and plant products posing a “medium” risk to UK biosecurity to identity and physical checks at border control posts. The checks test for pests and diseases and involve temperature readings and visual inspections.


Importers will then be invoiced for the checks by commercial ports. But even at this late stage, ports are still pressing for “urgent access” to a post-Brexit government IT system they say is crucial for ensuring they can actually invoice importers.


In a letter sent last week to the UK’s Cabinet Office, Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, and Rhett Hatcher, chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, warned it’s not possible to know “how many eligible goods are being transported through ports as well as who to invoice a blanket charge” without the information on the government’s Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed System.


"They need access to the government IT system, they say, in order to have a “realistic opportunity to recover costs from users and importers.”

 

In a meeting with port operators last week, officials at Britain’s environment department, Defra, tried to calm fears, and said they were working on sharing some of that data with ports. But they conceded the technical fix for doing this might not be available for months. It will need a data sharing agreement between the port operator and Defra — and the government may end up charging the ports for access to the data.


Even if they get access, port operators still don’t know if they’ll be able to use the data retrospectively to charge for checks already done.


“The main issue for ports that are affected is that they need to recover their ongoing operational costs and secondly their contribution to the capital costs,” explained Mark Simmonds, director of policy and external affairs at the British Ports Association. “They are eager to start doing that because even now they are incurring costs in keeping those [border control posts] going even though they are not being used.”


Without an effective means of charging importers, ports have the choice of either not charging importers at all — or finding some temporary fix of their own.


One workaround currently being explored would involve billing intermediaries such as shipping companies who would in turn bill customers — a move that inevitably piles on an extra layer of bureaucracy.


‘Laughing stock of Europe’

Despite having had years to plan for the new border regime, the British government appears to have left many crucial details until the last minute.

 

Repeated delays to the border regime mean a number of control posts have been left standing empty, causing them to be branded “Brexit white elephants” by port staff.


Earlier this month, ministers finally published details of the new charging regime for the checks at its own state-run border control post at Sevington, a village in Kent. The blanket fees for importers — known as a “common user charge” — will range from £10 for “low risk” goods up to £145 for “mixed consignments.”


But Nigel Jenney, Chief Executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium, described those costs as “exorbitant” and warned they will add “millions of pounds in annual costs to the supply chain.”

 

The government said two weeks ago it will take a “pragmatic” approach to checks.

“The UK government has ignored our extensive advice on how to streamline border processes,” Jenney warned.


“Instead, they’ve created a strategy that is both incompetent and hugely expensive ... This will drive up costs for our sector, which will ultimately be passed on to consumers already struggling with the rising cost of living.”


“We have become the laughing-stock of Europe,” he exclaimed.


A government spokesperson said: “These border checks are fundamental to protecting the UK’s food supply chain, farmers and natural environment against costly diseases reaching our shores.”


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