That’s according to trade bodies responding to questions from MPs in the latest meeting of the parliamentary committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), said the new era after the end of the Brexit transition period would entail a complete overhaul of the UK-EU supply chain. “What’s going to end up happening here is that unless the deal changes in some material way, we’re going to see the reengineering of almost all the EU-UK and GB-NI supply chains over the next six to nine months.”
That would lead to short-term ‘costs and time wasted for supply to reach the shelves’ and long-term costs and significant changes to the way EU and UK manufacturers interact when they are producing product. That said, that could create extra jobs in the part of the UK supply chain serving the domestic market, Wright added.
He referred to the increased delays sparked by the new paperwork that was needed for exports. “I’ll give you one example: one of our biggest companies, very well prepared, global, very well-known was trying to do a consignment of product out of the UK to the EU at the start of this week. The nature of the paperwork is that it’s very varied, there are many elements to the consignment and a job which normally took them three hours before the deal was done has taken them five days so far, such is the nature of the impenetrability of the paperwork.”
Cases where lorries were carrying multiple consignments of products – so-called ‘groupage’ – were causing particular headaches. While part of the EU, the UK only required one set of paperwork for the whole lorryload. Now, each consignment needed its own set.
“That’s our biggest problem and the subsidiary problem is that the settlement itself, particularly on Rules of Origin, is not as generous as we might have hoped and is therefore replete with difficulties hidden away in the documentation.”
One committee member highlighted that zero tariffs and quotas for goods only applied if Rules of Origin requirements were met.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said he was concerned about the supply of food to Northern Ireland after grace periods built into the deal with the EU expired. In particular, he referenced a three month grace period exempting full certification, such as Export Health Certificates, for all products of animal origin and a second grace period allowing the export of fresh meat preparations such as sausages and mince into NI, although not the EU. “If we do not find a workable solution for retailers in the next couple of months we do face significant disruption in Northern Ireland (NI).”
The industry was pressing for the integration of UK HMRC, NI and Ireland systems to help ease the process once the UK took control of export health certification in April.
Those giving evidence stressed concerns that if teething problems were causing delays at a time of year when export orders were historically low, the situation could worsen substantially once orders increased. “it will get worse because currently volumes across the short straights are at about 2,000 lorries and they should be around 10,000,” said Wright. “Secondly, the traffic across to NI and to the Republic of Ireland for those who supply NI through Dublin is also very light, so we haven’t had a proper test of this.”
Prioritise empty lorries
Opie highlighted that the Government was currently consulting on whether to prioritise empty lorries from the EU that had delivered short shelf-life products to UK customers after delays experienced at Dover in December. “The problem is often empty food lorries going back to Spain, Holland, Portugal to pick up the next consignment of fresh produce to bring it back to the UK, particularly at this time of year.”
Wright acknowledged the lack of customs agents to deal with the new paperwork required and said as a result, the FDF was even considering buying or starting a customs agency to help the industry. Opie said the lack of vets to certify paperwork for products of animal origin exported to the EU was ‘a big problem’, illustrated by the fact that the Government was looking to draft in other types of vet to help.