Brexit: Business groups attack government instructions to ‘follow rules’ that are yet to be decided

Rob Merrick
·3-min read
<p>Lorries back up as Operation Stack is activated on Kent motorway</p> (Getty)

Lorries back up as Operation Stack is activated on Kent motorway

(Getty)

Business groups have lashed out at new government instructions to “follow” post-Brexit trading rules – when those rules are mired in confusion.

Firms still do not know whether tariffs will be levied on goods in six weeks’ time – the prospect if the UK fails to strike a trade deal – and many procedures for Northern Ireland are unknown.

Yet, a letter sent to numerous sectors tells bosses: “Your business could face delays, disruption or administrative costs if you do not comply with new customs procedures from 1 January 2021.”

Penned by Alok Sharma, the business secretary, it adds: “If you are moving goods into, out of, or through Northern Ireland, check the latest guidance.”

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) attacked the new guidance as “beyond belief”, while the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) criticised “exhortations” in place of meaningful help.

The letter was sent as manufacturers in Belfast protested that an astonishing 60 questions they had asked about future trade across the Irish Sea had not been answered.

Construction of border inspection posts for checks on animal products crossing the Irish Sea has not yet started and will take up to six months to complete, an inquiry was told this month.

Meanwhile, hauliers have warned they are in the dark about the mountain of new red tape that will be required to transport goods across the Channel when the transition period ends on 31 December.

Plans for police to patrol the Kent border – to turn away lorries without an “access permit” and fine drivers failing to comply – are still being worked up.

Hannah Essex, co-executive director at the British Chambers of Commerce, warned of “critical gaps” in guidance for trade across the Irish Sea, saying: “Government must work with all haste to fill these gaps, or firms will face an uphill struggle to avoid disruption to their operations.”

Steve Elliott, chief executive of the Chemical Industries Association, said: “Chemical businesses in the UK have been preparing for a still far from clear future trading relationship with the European Union for over four years.”

Mike Cherry, the FSB national chair, called for “transition vouchers” to allow small businesses to invest in the new technology and training needed, instead of “exhortations”.

“While we appreciate the government is rightly encouraging firms to prepare, we urgently need the detail that will enable us to prepare comprehensively, not general calls to get ready,” he said.

And Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the FDF, said: “It is beyond belief that the government is telling food and drink manufacturers to prepare for moving goods to Northern Ireland, when they have still not set out what the rules will be, or precisely what businesses need to prepare for.

“Many producers are now preparing for a worst-case scenario and are planning to stop supplying the Northern Ireland market after 1 January 2021 in order to assess whether it remains a viable option for their business.”

The “urgent message” from Mr Sharma reads: “There is just over a month to go until the end of the transition period and there will be new rules to follow from 1 January 2021 onwards.

“As Business Secretary, I urge you to ACT NOW to avoid your business operations being interrupted when the transition period ends.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been asked to respond to the criticisms made.

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