The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has warned that the creation of customs posts on either side of the Irish border after Brexit would lead to higher costs and hold-ups for hauliers in Northern Ireland, and harm the economy of the province.
The warning came as prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled a Brexit offer to the EU which he said would avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, but without implementing the so-called backstop arrangements negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May, which could potentially tie the UK into a common customs territory with the EU indefinitely.
Under Mr Johnson’s proposals, which he was preparing to outline to Parliament as Transport Operator‘s print edition closed for press this month, Northern Ireland would remain within the European single market for good, but not within the customs union.
This would mean that lorries entering the Republic from the north would need to complete customs declarations, in order to ensure tariffs are paid when UK goods enter the EU.
But rather than installing infrastructure at the border itself, the government says declarations should be completed via electronic means, with physical checks only required on “a very small proportion” of movements. These could be carried out at designated locations anywhere on the island, including at businesses’ own premises or at other points in the supply chain.
Leaks to the media had previously suggested the UK government was toying with the creation of a string of so-called “customs clearance zones” within several miles of the border, allowing goods to be declared at nearby sites, then their movement monitored remotely via GPS or other tracking systems.
But that suggestion was quickly rejected by Irish politicians, and Mr Johnson has since played down the accuracy of the reports, insisting that any checks could take place away from the border. Initial reactions from Brussels to the prime minister’s plans had been notably lukewarm as we went to print in early October, however; and the possibility of no-deal, whether this month or following an election later in the year, remains very real.
The RHA pointed out that hauliers in both Northern Ireland and the Republic currently benefit from free access, and that customs formalities would only lead to delays and increased costs.
RHA Northern Ireland policy manager John Martin said the government should strike a deal with the EU which would ensure the free cross-border flow of goods.
“All parties need to take stock, drop the red lines and compromise to solve the problem,” he remarked.
“Time is running out and all parties around the table need to stop political posturing and make a deal… It’s crucial we maintain unfettered access both ways to ensure the continued and efficient movements of goods.”
With the government continuing to insist that the UK will leave the EU come what may on 31 October, despite measures put in place by opposition and rebel Tory MPs to outlaw a no-deal scenario, transport trade associations and the Department for Transport (DfT) were busy raising awareness of key Brexit issues among road haulage operators.
The DfT launched a multi-million pound awareness campaign last month, stating that it would set up 150 “pop-up advice centres” in ten countries, with messaging supported by an advertising campaign on billboards and media.
Hauliers are also being provided with a handbook and pocket guide with details of how they can prepare, in order to assure continued free travel. The pocket book is available in electronic form on the government website, in several languages.
The campaign also includes messages embedded into every booking confirmation email issued by ferry operators to hauliers, advising of the need for specific customs paperwork from Brexit day; tailored emails to EU-wide trade bodies covering border readiness and new traffic management requirements; and industry liaison days to provide information to EU businesses.
The government has also announced additional funding for the Operation Brock contingency plan to tackle congestion in Kent, which will contribute towards setting up Manston airport as a lorry holding facility, implementing border readiness checks, and ensuring drivers comply with the plan.
The RHA praised the DfT for emailing “over 70,000 UK operators, industry bodies and other interested parties with essential, detailed, information” which would “certainly reduce the impact” of Brexit on the supply chain.
The association also announced that it would launch a nationwide series of roadshows and webinars throughout October, which it said would provide clarity to traders and hauliers regarding the measures they needed to take. 66 seminars will take place across 22 locations, and across all four UK nations. Each will have the capacity to brief a minimum of 150 people.
A dedicated website – www.atobrexit.co.uk – has been launched by the RHA, with details and a booking facility for all the seminars and webinars, and a free helpline and contact service.
The Freight Transport Association (FTA) also launched a series of more than 100 free half-day workshops last month, funded by the DfT, which will continue throughout October in venues across the UK.
John Lucy, manager – international transport and trade procedures at FTA, commented: “With the UK and EU yet to reach an agreement on their future trading relationship, it is vital goods vehicle operators are as prepared as possible for a no-deal Brexit…
“While we are still waiting for clarification from government on several points – such as UK tariff regimes in the medium term – goods vehicle operators must ensure they have done everything in their power to prepare for the challenging times ahead: starting with these workshops.”
Keith Gray, FTA general manager for training, audits and standards, added: “FTA is the natural choice to deliver such a vital programme of workshops. I strongly encourage all goods vehicle operators – whether FTA members or not – to attend a free workshop.”
For more information, or to book a place on an FTA workshop, readers can click here.