UK ports 'exploring legal options' following government change to EU imports procedures plan

Fri 29 Apr 2022
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
Trade News

British ports are seeking “urgent engagement” with the government to recover the money they have spent building border infrastructure to be ready for new post-Brexit checks in July.

Some are considering legal action, according to media reports, after Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed yesterday that import controls on EU goods would not be required until at least the end of 2023, instead of 1 July this year as planned.

The government will use the time – some 18 months – to accelerate the digitisation of border procedures to reduce the need for most physical border checks.

Newspapers including The Times reported that some operators were “furious” at the decision and were exploring legal options to recover their investment if the government did not agree to reimburse them.

‘Urgent engagement needed’

Back in October 2020, the government launched a £200 million port infrastructure fund to help to meet the cost of new infrastructure that was required for Britain’s Border Operating Model.

Port operators also invested more than £100m in facilities, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group Tim Morris said.

“This now looks like wasted time, effort and money to develop what we fear will be highly bespoke white elephants,” Morris added. “Government needs to engage urgently with ports to agree how the substantial investments made in good faith can be recovered.”

Richard Ballantyne, the British Ports Association chief executive, said ports had rushed to get infrastructure ready on time: “This announcement is a major policy change, meaning the facilities will effectively become white elephants, wasting millions of pounds of public and private funding.”

New approach: a summary

The government announced yesterday there would be no requirement for the following until at least the end of 2023:

  • Physical, documentary and identity checks on SPS imports from the EU at the GB border
  • ENS (safety and security) declarations
  • Prohibitions and restrictions on the import of chilled meats
  • Export Health Certificates for animal-origin products, or phytosanitary certificates for plants and plants products 

Existing controls on EU goods, introduced in January 2021 and January 2022, continue to apply. 

Changed timetable

While the EU introduced checks on goods arriving from Great Britain starting 1 January 2021, the UK has adopted a phased approach to imports from the EU

Checks on meat imports were due to start on 1 July and on dairy on 1 September, with all remaining goods including fish and composite foods to be subject to checks from 1 November. A date for controls on live animals imported into Great Britain has yet to be agreed.

New digital regime

Ministers are now targeting the end of 2023 for a new border control regime.

In a statement yesterday, Rees-Mogg said the UK was “accelerating our transformative programme to digitise Britain’s borders” which would reduce friction and costs for businesses and consumers.

The proposed controls in July would have replicated the controls that the EU applies to their global trade, he said.

“This would have introduced complex and costly checks that would have then been altered later as our transformation programme is delivered,” he added.

Biosecurity issues

The NFU and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) have both criticised the announcement, reports Farmers Weekly.

The NFU said it was “astounded” at a decision that left UK farming at a competitive disadvantage to its EU counterpart and exposed the country to disease.

NFU president Minette Batters said: “These checks are absolutely crucial to the nation’s biosecurity, animal health and food safety, and without them we leave ourselves at risk.”

She added: “For the introduction of these checks to have been delayed three times was bad enough, but to now have them essentially scrapped in favour of an unknown system is unacceptable.”

BVA senior vice-president James Russell said: “With the UK now being outside the EU’s integrated and highly responsive surveillance systems, we have repeatedly warned that delaying veterinary checks further could weaken vital lines of defence against future incursions.”