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Politicians may think Brexit is done, but for the food industry, it has only just begun

With many practicalities still to be resolved in order to get the new UK border up and running, Brexit has only just begun for the food industry, says Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation.

We have just passed the fourth anniversary of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and it seems that after numerous false starts, the definitive ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’ moment is about to be upon us.

 

The sense of frustration and fatigue with all things Brexit is palpable and so, when it finally comes, whatever the outcome, it will probably feel like a blessed relief.

 

The problem is that a ‘deal’ is only really the start of thousands of consequential decisions and actions which will shape the future of our food industry.

 

After four years of rancour and confusion, and the sheer exhaustion of months of the Covid-19 crisis, we are not in a great place to motivate the industry to do what will now need to be done to manage our supply chains through the fundamental changes that come into being on January 1 2021.

 

Frustration

 

My biggest source of frustration about how Government has handled Brexit since June 2016 is just how irresponsible, and unfocused, they been about getting on with the boring stuff that really matters.

 

So much attention at all levels has been on the complexity of the politics and the dynamics of the negotiation with the EU that the job of building administrative systems which will work appears to have been neglected.

 

Even now, the job of designing import/export processes, commissioning IT systems, employing and training people and building infrastructure that will make up the new UK border is still charitably described as in its ‘early stages’.

 

Delays announced

 

When Brexit planning re-emerged from the Covid-19 enforced hiatus in June, the first announcement was a decision that the implementation of new rules (only announced in February 2020) governing how the UK would manage its border with the EU in January 2021 were going to be delayed.

 

They dressed the announcement up as a concession – having ‘listened to business’ – but it was actually a statement of the obvious.

 

The UK Government is in no way ready to manage its border in the way it should outside the EU single market.

 

Of course, ‘business’ is relieved that Government is not going to try and impose physical border checks on food or any other imports from January 1.

 

Trying to do so would have inevitably led to snarled up ports and traffic chaos.

 

Beware

 

But food businesses must beware. The concession announced is limited at best. It helps to avoid traffic jams, but not much else.

 

Anyone importing food from the EU is still going to have to record all product movements and will still be required to pay any duties they could be liable for (including VAT) from January 1.

 

The delay provided only relates to when information that must be submitted is sent in to customs and when duties must be paid.

 

When you think about it, if you are importing hundreds of food consignments every week, it’s not going to be a good idea to try and do all the data capture retrospectively.

 

Useful

 

The announcement does include a useful delay in having to do certain food-related import processes.

 

For example, the requirement to secure veterinary certificates on animal by-products imported from the EU applies from April, not January, and it will be July before any physical inspections can take place.

 

To do these physical inspections, the Government will build new bespoke border inspection facilities.

 

There is no evidence now, 12 months out, about where these new purpose-built facilities will be, how traffic flow will be designed to ensure food hauliers pass through them or who will staff and run them.

 

Even July feels optimistic given the scale of what needs to be done on that one.

 

Take control

 

My overarching message to food traders is do not rely on Government to lead you through this process.

 

Decisions will come late in the day. Communications will be chaotic.

 

New processes and IT systems will be subject to trial and error right the way up to the political deadline, and beyond.

 

Much of what is required of you may only be truly clear at the eleventh hour, if we are lucky, and most of the risk of getting it wrong is on you.

 

So, you must do all you can to take control of the process:

  • Audit your business, work out where your supply chain is exposed to import/export rule changes.
  • Establish what your capabilities are as a business to understand and manage those.
  • As far as possible, have the people and/or service providers in place to manage this for you.
  • Focus on ensuring you have systems in place to gather the data you need to facilitate goods movements.
  • Above all, make sure you establish clarity with your customers and suppliers about who will be responsible for what and how the costs of managing these new processes are going to be met.

Job done, job begun

 

There will be a lot of talk of ‘job done’ and time to move on in coming weeks.

 

It is vitally important no one in the food industry allows that political rhetoric to obscure the scale of the task ahead for us.

 

The politicians may think their job is done, but for the food industry, I fear that the main Brexit job has only just begun.

 

Shane can be found tweeting at @ColdChainShane

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