Do ministers have a plan for new Brexit import controls? | Analysis and Features

Another deadline is coming and going, and there will still be no checks on EU food and drink imports into the UK after a fourth postponement.

Last week, Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said bringing the scheme in as planned on July 1 would have been an “act of self-harm” for the UK.

While many food and drink companies welcomed the decision, the government’s actions are attracting more and more backlash. Increasingly, businesses are asking the question: do ministers have a plan, and will controls ever be introduced?

Although there was a sense of inevitability during the latest flashback, after several clues from Westminster, The Grocer understands suppliers were “appalled by the lack of detail” on what will happen next.

“We all wanted to know what the government’s plan is. We wanted to get the details,” says Richard Harrow, CEO of the British Frozen Food Federation. “But it is obvious that there is no plan at all.”

Companies will now have to wait until autumn for more detailed plans, while Rees-Mogg says the government will accelerate proposals to “digitize Britain’s borders”, harnessing new technology and data to reduce friction and costs.

Insiders say there has been a power shift, with the likes of Rees-Mogg and former Brexit negotiator David Frost determined to move away from heavy checks, which they fear will see the worst predictions in the world. Brexit come home.

“It’s very clear that they want a different regime, less regulation,” a source said. “It’s Rees-Mogg and Frost who win over [environment secretary George] Eustice.

But at this week’s meeting with Defra, the delay left port authorities demanding to know what they were supposed to do with the facilities and staff employed to carry out the checks.

The FT has reported that the UK Major Ports Group – which estimates the industry has spent £100million to build new border facilities, with a further £200million provided in post-Brexit government grants – is seeking compensation . “It now looks like a waste of time, effort and money to develop what we fear are highly personalized white elephants,” the band said.

Preparing to wear

While major UK ports were ready for the introduction of controls, smaller ones were not, making a delay “inevitable”.

“Stranraer and others on the west coast are not ready, and on the EU side a lot of small exporting European companies are not ready,” a source said.

Still, chief vets have slammed the delay, warning it leaves the UK increasingly open to food safety threats. “If sick or toxic food is stirred and someone dies, it will all fall in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s lap,” a source said.

It is now crucial that the government works with industry to design a “new modern and innovative border system”, says FDF international trade manager Dominic Goudie. This includes changing the way sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) certification is done, rewarding trusted traders and making bundling easier.

BRC director for food Andrew Opie, meanwhile, is calling on ministers to come up with a system of controls that will streamline costs and bureaucracy.

While the industry waits, many are asking another question. As one source put it: “If that’s what it’s all about taking back control – forcing UK suppliers to pay extra to export while European suppliers pay nothing to bring food into this country – heaven help us.

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