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The whole country is counting down to Brexit day on March 29 – but the actual deadline will arrive a lot sooner than that.
Mr Clark explained that firms that export goods to countries such as Japan have just days to decide on future trading arrangements rather than waiting for the official date at the end of March.
Rachel Reeves, who chairs the Business Select Committee, told the minister that for firms exporting to Japan, the real deadline is February 15 because it takes up to six weeks for goods to arrive.
When pressed on the issue, Mr Clark agreed that firms will need to make decisions about whether to send goods to Japan by sea in the ‘next couple of weeks’.
He told MPs: ‘It is one of the reasons why I’ve been very outspoken in saying that we should not regard the 29th of March or the 28th of March as the time that we should be prepared to take to conclude a deal.
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‘People often say these things are done at the last minute – the last minute for important exporters is fast approaching over the next few days and weeks.’
The Business Secretary said engineering firms exporting to Japan had warned him they would need six weeks’ notice of any new trading arrangements.
Ms Reeves said February 15 is a ‘crucial day’ for exporters.
Mr Clark said warnings from motor companies about the impact on their UK business of no deal showed the importance of Parliament making a decision to end the uncertainty.
He would be a ‘vigorous proponent’ of the Government’s policy of trying to strike a deal, adding: ‘I think it’s obvious to everyone that, if it were ever to be the policy of the Government, as a matter of policy, to leave the European Union (without a deal), there would be many people on all sides of the House that would regard that as unacceptable.’
Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, revealed there were 1,235 staff in the department working on Brexit, including 900 taken on specifically to deal with the UK leaving the EU.
The department was originally allocated £185 million to work on Brexit, later adjusted to £139 million.
He told MPs some work had been ‘pushed back’ because of Brexit, including the role hydrogen could play in the future economy.
Prime Minister Theresa May is attempting to find a solution to the controversial Irish backstop in her EU deal so that it can finally be passed by Westminster.