Brexit’s hostile environment

The British establishment has a number of strengths, not all of them positive. Long standing cultural patterns such as racism or mysogyny are not always associated with the toxic knee jerk emotions they unleash. Sometimes stretching back for generations, past prejudices cast veiled shadows over current mindsets. 

A common marker of such underlying tendencies is the urge to promote a hostile environment for groups that the establishment does not feel comfortable around. Avoiding confrontation, but nevertheless antagonistic towards them, officialdom reserves a superficial welcome for people of colour, migrants or women, among others.

At an institutional level, something similar could be seen in the gung-ho pursuit of aggressive tactics throughout the Brexit negotiations, during which concessions were demanded with little thought of any form of quid pro quo

Left to its own devices, the civil service is capable of creating procedures and regulations that contribute to an underlying malaise. This administrative hostile environment casts a shadow on those who are bound by or who enforce such oppressive rules. The Border Transit Operating Model offers a number of examples of the genre, such as the Common User Charge (CUC). 

DEFRA consulted with business leaders last summer, promising to share its findings in the autumn. For months there was talk of a “world class” system, but no operational detail that anyone could use for the day to day running of their business.

On January 19, Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy challenged the government’s wall of silence surrounding the Common User Charge.

She told the House that: 

“The charge is intended to apply to each consignment, whether it is one leg of lamb or a van full of reindeer and frogs’ legs. As 65% of lorries coming into this country carry multiple consignments, known as groupage, it is clear how expensive this way of applying the charge will be. 

“The Government have therefore chosen to fund the new border by imposing fees directly on businesses that import. The pledge that Brexit would be a bonfire of regulation turned into a smouldering pile of paperwork that will kill imports for small businesses. Can I just put it on the record  on behalf of British business — this is mad.”

Parliamentary Undersecretary of State of Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow, replied: 

“We have provided further facilitation and guidance for importers using groupage models – the honourable Lady referred to groupage models, where a lorry delivers a whole lot of different models in one lorry – in terms of moving sanitary and phytosanitary goods into the UK, in order to make the system of certification more streamlined.” 

The word “consignment” is completely absent from the minister’s frankly incoherent reply, which is a thinly disguised attempt to buy time.

Creasy then asked the government on February 8 whether a decision had been taken as to the rate at which the Common User Charge would be fixed and when such a decision might be published. Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mark Spencer, replied on February 27 that an announcement would be made “imminently.” He added that: “This will help commercial ports in setting charges for their own facilities and provide traders with time to make the necessary finance, accounting and operational arrangements.” More stalling, more flannel, more empty words. 

The simple fact is that by the time the final workings of the CUC were revealed to the public, there was less than a month to do anything about it. For those who are still catching up with reality, the British government is rolling out a punitive tax on imported goods, starting on April 30.

For those who are up to speed with this news, there is a very real prospect of European traders resenting the British government’s crude attempt to monetise inland inspection facilities. The result could be a sudden and brutal drop in shipments to the UK. 

So strange, yet true

The British government’s plans really are as mad as they sound. Try this example for size:

Fresh produce importer PML Seafrigo runs a private BCP at Lympne, near Dover. Company director Mike Parr picks up the story:

“PML Seafrigo has its own 24/7 border control post at Lympne, which is the closest point of entry to the Port of Dover (closer than Sevington), we have a dedicated transport and logistics hub for imported goods and yet our customers will still be charged the CUC even though they will not be using the Sevington facility. 

“The government is effectively asking businesses such as ours to collect taxes on their behalf. And the fact that this fee will be reviewed and updated annually by Defra is itself worrying, it could easily be increased in 12 months’ time. 

Parr is outraged by the casual way the government is abusing the trust of the country’s traders.

“The common user charge (CUC) is effectively another business tax that will be applied to each commodity line in a Common Health Entry Document (CHED). Although fees are capped – £145 for every consignment arriving via the Port of Dover or Eurotunnel –this is another expense for importers and retailers to bear, which will of course be reflected in further delays at the ports and another price hike for essential food items.

“What is particularly frustrating is that the fee is being levied for all fresh produce / plants goods passing through Dover or Folkestone – even if they don’t pass through the government controlled inspection post at Sevington.”

The question that most people would want an answer to is “WHY is the British government waging war on the very people that it claims to support? Any ideas, please add as a comment.

Imminent change

Since leaving the EU, the UK government has operated transitional biosecurity arrangements, including one called Place of Destination. After a number of postponements, the scheme is finally being withdrawn on April 30 to make way for the long-awaited Border Target Operating Model (BTOM).

This will redraw the map for traders, legislators and consumers alike, including a number of far-reaching modifications to the way the border will be managed. It marks the start of a shift away from EU standards to a home-grown hodge podge. In its day, Place of Destination allowed businesses to do their own product checks at a time when UK border facilities were either not available or still under construction.

DEFRA’s own description is an opaque blend of jargon and legalese: “The PoD scheme not only afforded flexibility to businesses as they adjusted to the new requirements following the end of the transition period, but also allowed the UK government time to thoroughly design BCP infrastructure and processes, maintaining frictionless trade, while protecting GB biosecurity.” The present outlook is not encouraging.

On Monday, March 12, the EFRA Select Committee met under the chairmanship of Dr Neil Hudson to discuss the ongoing shortage of vets to carry out routine health checks on inbound food products. The UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss told the committee that when the UK left Europe there was a shortage of vets in the order of 11%, and, that to her present knowledge, this was still the case. This sounds suspiciously disingenuous, since the demand for routine veterinary validations for food imports is rising steadily. Westminster has known for years that the food industry was facing a skills gap. A House of Lords committee warned of this in 2017 [click link to see context] and the idea that demand could be static is a non-starter.

Food imports set for price hike

After a couple of years of waving through EU imports of meat and animal products with no dockside checks, the UK government is about to apply a sharp twist to food pricing this year. It will start charging businesses a fixed charge on all shipments passing through government-run Border Control Posts. Referred to as the Common User Charge (CUC), it was put out for consultation over three weeks in July last year. While the CUC will be a single fixed payment, there are uncertainties over inspection charges for food shipments that would be billed by BCP operators*. These can total hundreds of pounds for a large container.

On January 31 2024, DEFRA brought into force a number of measures for each of the three risk categories (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/border-target-operating-model-information-leaflets-for-businesses/technical-questions-and-answers-about-sanitary-and-phytosanitary-controls-sps#risking-approach).

These are as follows

From 31 January 2024, DEFRA has introduced:

  • health certification on imports from the EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of medium risk animal products and the introduction of health certification on imports from the EU, Lichtenstein and Switzerland of medium risk plants and plant products
  • health certification on imports from the EU and EFTA of high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin
  • import pre-notification and health certification when moving EU and EFTA animal products or EU, Switzerland and Lichtenstein plant products from the island of Ireland, to align with the rest of the EU (for example, any goods other than qualifying Northern Irish goods from Irish ports directly to Great Britain)

As of April 24,in DEFRA’s own words:

From 30 April 2024, DEFRA will be adding:

  • the introduction of documentary and risk-based identity and physical checks on medium risk animal products, plants, plant products and high-risk food and feed of non-animal origin from the EU
  • existing inspections of high risk plants and plant products from the EU will move from destination to Border Control Posts
  • beginning to simplify imports from non-EU countries – this will include the removal of health certification and routine checks on low risk animal products, plants, plant products from non-EU countries as well as reduction in physical and identity check levels on medium-risk animal products from non-EU countries

What will DEFRA deliver?

2.1 How are checks within a port or airport’s perimeter organised, and who does what and has accountability to make it happen?

Within the curtilage of a sea or airport, the port operator will direct the movement of consignments. At the Border control post (BCP), APHA will undertake checks on live animals, or plants and their products.  The Port Health Authority/Local Authority will undertake checks on animal products and High-Risk Feed or Food Not of Animal Origin (HRFNAO). The port operator will not release a consignment from the port until they have been informed that it has been cleared by the relevant inspection authority.

2.2 Will BCPs be ready? Do they have sufficient capacity?

Defra is confident that existing and new BCP infrastructure will have sufficient capacity and capability to handle the volume of expected checks outlined in the BTOM, with robust, dynamic, and effective operational measures ready to call upon if needed. Defra will continue to work with existing BCP operators to ensure they are prepared, and the Government has built new infrastructure at critical locations. Operators have not expressed concerns regarding under-capacity, we are therefore not anticipating queues but will continue working closely with operators to address any concerns they may have.

What next?

Britain’s busiest ferry port faces the risk of bankruptcy following Westminster’s decision to retract millions of pounds in funding for swine fever checks on pigs arriving at the port of Dover. The money has already been spent during the financial years for which it was allocated. The local council meets tonight (Monday February 5) to plan for the coming months, when food testing will be rolled out further.

A third of Dover District Council’s budget is diverted from local government to funding food safety checks at the UK’s largest passenger and freight terminal. In June, this figure will rise to nearly half. Dover handles up to 120 ship movements a day at peak periods and moves a third of the UK’s food imports.

The harbour is run by an independent trust, set up by an act of parliament and given the task of managing the busiest ferry port in the UK. Since the legal requirements are set by national laws, Dover has no choice but to comply. The district council is run by a Labour group with a majority of one elected in May last year. The harbour’s independent status means that theoretically it can set whatever prices it needs for its services to pay their way. The reality is not that simple

245% duty shock for UK cheese

British cheese exports to Canada will face duty of 245% next year, once the third country duty-free quota is exhausted. Some 95% of this quota is already taken by products arriving from Norway and Switzerland, leaving very little for shipments to any other third country.

This slap in the face for British cheesemakers comes as Canadian negotiators came amid talks on the implementation of the much-vaunted bilateral trade deal. Refusing to roll over previous extensions to zero percent duty available under former EU terms, the so-called cheese letters, the decision vapourises pre-Brexit claims of extensive growth in UK food exports. These will in fact be treated like any other third country products, in the absence from specific terms agreed during the framework negotiations. Last year, the UK exported cheese worth nearly GBP 19 million to Canada.

Late, random and arbitrary

One of the most frequent arguments trotted out for Brexit was that it was time to take back control of international borders. The ‘take back control’ mantra was somehow an irrefutable justification when all else fails. It remains more of a fig leaf than a reasoned argument.

Having regained third country status to make this dream come true, the UK has obtusely dragged its feet over implementing the veterinary aspects of border control. The simple truth is that the commitments which come with international borders were not in fact a top priority for British politicians. There has been little political appetite to ensure full compliance with post-Brexit structures from day one, possibly because the necessary skill sets are in short supply.

The declaration of a 10km Temporary Control Area for blue tongue around a dairy farm in Kent came as a wake-up call the UK government. It was as if Westminster was caught out taking a calculated risk that there might not be any significant animal health issues. There may not be a serious risk of the notifiable disease spreading, the real problem is the political fallout from gaps in the UK’s veterinary provision under international animal health treaties.

This autumn has seen the implem entation of the first phase of the UK government’s Target Operating Model (TOM), marking greater reliance on digitised documentation and a move away from visual inspections. If all goes according to plan, the next twelve months will see the implementation of sanitary inspections by customs staff. The laboratory and testing fees will be charged to the owners of the goods concerned,. The additional costs will be significant but randomised. The testing will have an inflationary effect, but this will neither be directly attruibutable nor constant. It will b e impossible to predict reliably, but will generate resentment.

Worst of both worlds for UK farmers

UK farmers exporting to Europe have faced the full cost of third country status from the start, while EU exporters of animal products to the UK have effectively had a free ride in the absence of routine food safety checks on animal products arriving in the UK.

“For the past three years, our farmers have faced the full reach of EU controls on our exports while the EU has enjoyed continued easy access to the UK marketplace,” NFU president Minette Batters told Urban Food Chains. “This is not just an issue for competitiveness, with British farmers faced with additional costs and paperwork, but also for our nation’s biosecurity.”

Pic: NFU

“Proportionate and effective controls are necessary if we are to prevent outbreaks of pests and diseases that threaten human, animal and plant health, the safety, quality and biosecurity of our food products and the confidence of our trading partners.”

More detail on this paradox can be found here.

“It is vital that the government uses the latest delay wisely to raise awareness among EU exporters and to address the concerns expressed by many in the supply chain. This includes horticulture growers who continue to see the shift of controls away from their business premises to border control posts as a major point of jeopardy, with unknown costs and heightened biosecurity risks. This time should also be used to minimise unnecessary delays at the border once the new system is finally up and running.”

Restoring checks on animal products will push up import costs

The UK is at last preparing to complete the Brexit process. For two years randomised routine physical checks on imported animal products have not been carried out. In 2024, ports with Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) will start to undertake physical inspections. These will be comparable to those which have been carried out routinely at European BIPs from day one.

Checks on the documentation for inbound goods, however, is carried at the border. For inbound consignments of animal products, this is done at a BIP, for which an appointment is made. The resources and staff for these checks are charged to the owner* of the goods and amount to just under a tenner a tonne. The cost of physical checks will reflect the degree of sophistication involved, and will routinely come to hundreds of pounds.

The money charged for all this checking is not customs duty but it will be counted towards the customs valuation, an aggregate figure upon which 20% import VAT is due. Local authorities will collect the product checking revenue, HMRC will bank the VAT. Bringing in a full regime of product checking will add significantly to the cost of putting food on the market.

The UK government estimates that the additional fees for product checking and related services will add GBP 330 million a year across all imports from EU. The UK government claims that the impact on food and drink imported from the EU “… will not be significant.” This is a moot point.

Checking the documents for a consignment of animal products in normal office hours would cost GBP 196 at the BIP in East Midlands airport. A further GBP 64 would be charged for goods listed on additional veterinary certificates appearing on the same header document. Costs rise for out of hours inspections, for which prices are quoted on application. Bear in mind, however, that air freight consignments will be smaller than loads packed in containers.

Third country goods going into the EU face physical checks determined by the sampling rate fixed by the customs service. Traders shipping goods into the EU can earn a reduction in the frequency of physical checks, by complying with EU requirements. Think of it as time off for good behaviour. As a new third country, the UK has faced 100% sampling. UK exporters have been charged accordingly, unlike traders shipping to the UK.

*Ownership of goods in transit is a moveable feast. It is often transferred directly from the seller to the buyer when the goods are loaded on to a ship, but since the buyer may not be the end user at this point, there are a number of alternative outcomes. The shipping line often takes ownership for the duration of the journey, since owners can be required to make snap decisions in the event of accidents or mishaps.

Home truthes about inflation

Never mind those tired voices from government benches, proclaiming lower inflation rates. Prices are still going up, slower than before, maybe, but they are unlikely to stabilise with a government that routinely lies and prevaricates from force of habit. The only promise that Boris kept during Brexit was “F*ck business.” The rest was cake-ism.

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