Thursday 4 June 2020

Preparations step up despite fresh Brexit deal within grasp

Transport trade groups are busily assessing the detail of Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal and its potential impact on the sector’s operations; but the Freight Transport Association (FTA) has already emphasised that the new deal is in any case preferable to the alternative.

The prime minister surprised critics and allies alike last week after reaching agreement with the EU on a fresh, eleventh-hour Brexit agreeement, which fulfils his pledge to remove controversial Irish ‘backstop’ arrangements by creating what has been described as a new customs frontier in the Irish Sea.

“It is clear that there is not time now to prepare for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October: there are many unanswered questions about how our borders should work, and no time to implement the answers even if decisions could be reached on important policy issues,” said FTA in response to Mr Johnson’s announcement.

“Therefore, at this stage, leaving with a deal and the accompanying transition period for answering important questions and being prepared for the changes, is far preferable to a no deal Brexit on 31 October…

“We will review the proposed deal carefully, and seek any clarifications and changes required by the logistics industry to deliver a successful Brexit.”

The government has insisted that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK customs territory under the deal, but those businesses hoping for ‘frictionless’ movement of goods between Great Britain and the island of Ireland after the transition period, which is set to end in December 2020 under the terms of the agreement, are likely to be disappointed.

Yesterday, while giving evidence to a House of Lords select committee, an apparently confused Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay eventually conceded that Northern Ireland firms would have to fill out export declaration forms when sending goods to Great Britain, having initially denied it earlier in the session. The news is likely to meet with particular concern from hauliers that operate on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The new deal has already met with delay in Parliament, after a majority of MPs signalled they were unwilling to grant their approval while a risk of no deal on 31 October remained. The result was the cancellation of a planned ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal on Saturday, triggering the implementation of the so-called Benn Act, which compelled the prime minister to request an extension to the deadline from EU leaders.

However, it is widely thought that there may be a majority in Parliament for the principle of the deal, due to statements of qualified support from a minority of Labour MPs, rebel Tories, and the so-called spartans on the right of the party in favour of a hard Brexit settlement.

The question now is whether reams of technical legislation required to implement the agreement in UK law can be successfully signed off before the end of the month, whether a short ‘technical extension’ will be required, or whether amendments tabled by opposition MPs will scupper the deal altogether, likely prompting a general election.

A no-deal scenario on 31 October is now said to be unlikely, as it would currently rely on the EU27 rejecting the prime minister’s request for an extension – a position they are thought to be highly reluctant to take. However, the UK government has nonetheless stepped up contingency planning in the wake of further inertia in Parliament.

The House of Lords has given its approval to legislation pertaining to the implementation of Operation Brock in Kent, designed to combat cross-Channel travel disruption following the UK’s departure from the EU in a no-deal scenario.

New powers for traffic officers in the county, which would have effect until December 2020, have been designed to prevent situations whereby drivers attempting to take goods into the EU are found at the point of departure not to have newly required customs documentation, thereby worsening congestion at ports and the Eurotunnel.

Operation Brock has been designed to keep Kent’s M20 motorway open in both directions, even in periods of severe disruption – and involves the use of a contraflow queuing system on the route between Maidstone and Ashford, with the potential for HGVs bound for Dover to be diverted to Manston Airport, and for the M26 to be used to store trucks headed for Europe as a last resort.

Following consultation over the summer, the new regulations will allow traffic officers in Kent to require drivers to produce documentation proving their vehicles’ destination and readiness to cross the border. If they are able to do this, they will be granted permits for onward travel.

The new rules also provide officers with powers to direct drivers to a motorway, in order to remove the vehicle from the local road network, and also to direct them not to proceed to the Channel Tunnel or the Port of Dover except via a specified road or route.

“Document checks to help make sure that a haulier has the right documents will be carried out on the M20 by temporary traffic officers contracted by, and under the direct supervision of, Highways England, while broader traffic management and enforcement will be dealt with by permanent staff and the police,” said the transport minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton, introducing a motion to approve the new rules in the Lords.

Failing to comply with the new rules could result in a fixed penalty notice for £300, she continued. This could be applied to each contravention.

New rules also prohibit cross-Channel HGVs from using local roads in Kent, aside from those which form part of routes approved by Operation Brock.

“To facilitate traffic flow, the legislation also requires cross-Channel heavy goods vehicles to remain in the nearside—left-hand—lane when using those parts of the Brock routes that are dual carriageway local roads,” she explained.

“Appropriate exceptions to this prohibition have been provided after consultation with the Kent Resilience Forum and freight associations.

“For example, a vehicle on a cross-Channel journey can make a local collection or delivery provided the driver can provide information sufficient to satisfy a constable or traffic officer that the vehicle is being driven on a particular road for that purpose alone.”

Meanwhile, further legislation prohibits cross-Channel HGVs from accessing the M20’s coastbound carriageway between Junctions 9 and 13 unless a permit is displayed.

“This permit will be issued in the Brock queue between junctions 8 and 9, enabling a driver to demonstrate that they have followed the approved Brock route and have complied with any border document checks that may be undertaken in the queue,” explained Baroness Vere.

“This order also prohibits cross-Channel heavy goods vehicles joining the M20 contraflow between junctions 8 and 9 of the London-bound carriageway.”

She added: “We propose conducting border readiness checks in the Brock queues. In practice, this means that: if Brock M20 is active, HGVs heading to Dover and Eurotunnel will undergo checks on the M20 between junctions 8 and 9; if [the Manston Airport element of Operation Brock] is active, because congestion at the ports has worsened, Dover-bound heavy goods vehicles will be queued at Manston Airport, where checks will take place, and Eurotunnel-bound heavy goods vehicles will continue to queue on the M20 and be checked there.

“A haulier who is deemed to be ready to cross the border will be given a permit that allows them to go to the port. Hauliers who try to go to the port without a permit could be stopped, directed to the back of the relevant Brock queue and receive the proposed on-the-spot £300 fine by the police or the DVSA.

“These orders are of vital importance to allow sensible traffic management in Kent. It is critical that we demonstrate to the public and to business that Operation Brock will be ready, fully operational and enforceable on day one should it be needed to deal with the impact of cross-Channel disruption.”

Justifying the fixed penalty notices, the Baroness said a “test of reasonableness” would be replied.

“If a haulier was consistently breaching the regulations and taking routes that they should not, I suspect that being penalised many times would probably be appropriate, because we have to stop the behaviour,” she said.

“At the end of the day, the hauliers do not want to get to the border without being border ready—so, to a certain extent, this is for their benefit.”

Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said he was satisfied that Operation Brock would be ready in time, but added that the government needed to focus on ensuring hauliers and traders were prepared as quickly as possible.

“Firms need to know exactly what documentation is required to be Brexit-ready but there are still gaps in the government’s communications with business,” he said.

“Time is running out – we need much clearer guidance on the processes for moving goods across borders if we’re to avoid delays and chaos at Channel ports.”

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