A recent cartoon in the Times newspaper showed a lorry with two further ones behind stopped at a dockside customs post. ‘The next two trucks contain my paperwork’ the driver is saying to the customs official at the barrier.
It was inevitable that there would be disruption to trade with Europe as the transition period of leaving the European Union came to an end. The timescale for achieving a trade deal was very short compared to other negotiations and agreement only finally came less than a fortnight before the deadline. The question is how much of that disruption is due to short term issues and how much to the inadequacy of the new procedures put in place.
The Government claims that delays are due to teething problems which will be sorted out very quickly. In this, it is being disingenuous because it is quite clear that Government departments were woefully unprepared for the change and, in some cases, did not even understand the scale of the challenge. Lorries queuing up at Dover and reports of meat rotting at docks on the continent are evidence of that.
Nick Allen is the chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, a farmer in Hampshire and a long-standing friend since our days in Young Farmers. He has spent innumerable hours over many months discussing the new arrangements with Defra officials but has been unable to persuade them that their proposals, now in force, were totally inadequate to tackle the new reality. Meat is no different to other commodities that are now transported ‘just in time’ but has the added issue of being perishable.
A couple of weeks ago, there were stories in the press of severe delays in deliveries of meat. One exporter had five containers of fresh pork impounded in Rotterdam for two weeks because a veterinary certificate had not been completed correctly. Another had five lorries, each containing 23 tonnes of fresh chilled meat, impounded in Calais for three days. That meat, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds has been destroyed, all because of incorrect paperwork. That might be classified as teething troubles because, presumably, exporters will get better at filling in the paperwork correctly.
But that is only part of the story. The reason for poor form filling is because the whole process is hugely cumbersome and inefficient. Defra claims that the form filling has been digitalised, but all that means is that the form can be filled out online before being printed off. All shipments of meat to the continent need to have an export health certificate signed by a vet. But the forms are long and generic so many changes have to made by hand once the forms are printed. Each amendment has to be signed and stamped by the vet turning into a long-winded and expensive exercise. Nick has seen forms with at least fifty different changes with the obvious potential for errors. Even if no mistake is made, it takes time for the form to be examined by officials at dockside causing long delays and, if an error is found, the freight is immediately impounded. The export health certificate is only one of the forms required, there are many others and everyone involved has little experience of the new procedures adding to delay and potential for mistakes.
The fishing industry is equally affected with protests seen in Parliament Square recently. It is ironic that those fishermen who were so keen to take back control of British territorial waters now complain that they cannot sell their catch, most of which goes to the continent.
The French insist that the British exporter cannot deal directly with the French importer, there has to be an agent. That agent, of course, has to be French and has to live close enough to the port to be able to attend in person if there is any issue at customs. There are simply not sufficient appropriate people able to fill that role which, of course, adds to the bureaucracy and delay.
There are now reports that lorries from the continent making deliveries in the UK are returning empty because traders cannot face the costs and delays of taking freight back through customs. All this is happening in January when trade is reduced after the Christmas break, especially this year with the new customs arrangements. Before Brexit, at least 10,000 lorries passed through the port of Dover every day with an average of two minutes for customs checks. That is now just a fond memory!
There are reports of empty supermarket shelves in Paris and elsewhere, especially Marks and Spencer. This is also the case in Northern Ireland with severe delays to freight crossing the Irish Sea. There was the promise of no hard border between the two parts of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK but there appears to be one in the Irish Sea.
These are not just teething troubles, the new arrangements are simply not fit for purpose. Trade between the UK and the EU will diminish significantly if these issues are not rectified very quickly as exporters, importers and hauliers simply give up in the face of such bureaucracy. This will have severe implications for food supplies on both sides of the border with the knock-on effect for producers and processors.