Richard North, 08/03/2021  

To the surprise of absolutely nobody who has been remotely following the post-Brexit train-wreck, the Observer has reported that (some) British ports say they are "not ready for Brexit customs checks".

From 1 July, the paper says, ministers expect checks to take place at more than 30 designated border control posts (BCPs), where goods, plants and animals entering from the EU by sea, rail or air can be inspected, and in many instances construction has only just begun.

For the record, though, only products of animal origin (including live animals), plus plants and products derived from plants, are inspected at BCPs. Furthermore, they are subject to "official controls" which lie outside the Union Customs Code (UCC) and most definitely are not customs checks.

The distinction is hugely important as the inspections precede customs, goods must be separately notified and the bodies carrying out the inspections are not customs officials. In the UK, BCPs are managed by local council port health authorities and funded from the inspection fees charged to importers. Customs have their own, separate buildings.

Of course, one would not expect journalists or the editors of national newspapers to understand the difference. In their simplistic and all-too-often ill-informed view of the world, entry checks on goods at ports must, by definition, be customs checks.

Anyhow, although Channel ports on the Continent, such as Calais and Zeebrugge, are ready for business, most of the ports in the UK – where the EU system of food import control has been retained – have been left trailing, mainly as a result of central government delays in providing the necessary capital funding to build the necessary infrastructure.

And even the Observer has recognised that BCPs are a little bit special. Although they might resemble industrial units or distribution warehouses from the outside, the paper says, the interior must be biosecure, so that inspection of live animals, meat and plants can take place without risk of contamination, with vets on hand to carry out the controls. They must also provide space for HGVs to park, all of which makes them costly and complex to construct.

Actually, there is much more to it than that, with the minimum requirements set out in Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/1014, which has been retained on the UK statute book.

Particularly demanding are the temperature control requirements, enabling chilled, frozen and ambient temperature goods to be stored simultaneously at each appropriate temperature category.

It is common practice for temperature controlled deliveries to have onboard monitoring and recording of load temperatures, with very tight specifications set. Loads which exceed set parameters will often be refused on arrival at their destinations, and if temperature spikes can be attributed to inadequacies in the BCP inspection regime, the authorities might be responsible for any losses incurred.

To avoid the risk of contamination, separate facilities must be provided for different types of food. Raw meats, for instance, cannot be stored or inspected in the same areas as cooked or other "high risk" foods. To avoid taint, fish and fishery products are also inspected separately. Staff must be separately allocated between the areas, with special procedures applied when movement between the areas is required.

Because of this, not all BCPs will be equipped to handle all types of foods, and similar restrictions apply to the inspection of live animals – with separate facilities needed for different species – and for animal feed, and products not intended for human consumption. All of these have to be handled in segregated areas.

This makes provision and coordination of inspection services especially problematical, something partially recognised in the Guardian piece which highlights the experience at Portsmouth, an issue which has also been covered in the local press.

This port bid for a share of the £200m taxpayer-funded Port Infrastructure Fund, but this was vastly oversubscribed. As a result, the government trimmed by 34 percent the grants provided to Portsmouth and 40 other successful applicants looking to extend port facilities. Thus, while Portsmouth applied for £32 million in funding, it only received £17.1 million.

Faced with a significant shortfall, the publicly owned port has had to trim its ambitions, scrap plans for a live animal inspection post within the BCP complex. However, it is a main point of entry into the UK for racehorses, with about 9,000 coming through the port annually. In total, there are also around 30,000 breeding animals, including pigs, sheep and cattle, which enter and exit the UK through Portsmouth each year.

With other Channel ports unwilling to invest in the facilities, the NFU is warning that the livestock breeding business could grind to a halt. Likewise, equestrian movements might be severely curtailed, affecting horse racing and a range of equestrian sports. Including the live animal BCP at Portsmouth would require an additional £7 million, for a trade which only brings in around £35,000 a year to the city.

Portsmouth City Council leader, Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, says: "As a local authority owned port experiencing untenable pressures to provide for the city, we cannot be expected to take any financial liability to cover costs for government required changes to imports".

He adds: "The government had previously proposed to fully fund an inland BCP, however the location chosen was not convenient for hauliers using the port and would have meant a significant detour. We provided an alternative, at much lower cost, within the port site". The council is now calling for the government to step up and make sure adequate funding is in place.

Even where the necessary facilities are provided, however, that is no indication that the volumes passing through the port can be handled. Loads requiring inspection may, therefore, be held waiting for several hours before they can be allocated space, and the inspection process itself may be prolonged, adding significant delays to the supply chain.

All this, though, is for the future. At the moment, authorities such as Hull are racing against the clock to get the facilities built in time. Many of the 30 or so planned BCPs simply won't be ready.

With less than four months to go, construction has only just begun at ports including Portsmouth, Purfleet on Thames in Essex, and Killingholme on the Humber. The location of some inland border checkpoints – such as Holyhead on Anglesey and in south-west Wales to serve the ports of Fishguard and Pembroke – has not even been announced. The Kent site named White Cliffs, where goods arriving at Dover will be inspected, is described as a "muddy field".

And even when the buildings are erected and equipped there is still the problem of recruiting and training staff, plus working up operational procedures and systems, including new IT systems which will require government input. And, at this stage, with no real idea of the throughputs, it will be very difficult for port health authorities to predict accurately the staffing requirement.

Unsurprisingly, as we learned yesterday, ministers are preparing to abandon the original phasing for border checks, allowing "lighter touch" controls on imports to extend past 1 July.

That, already, is an awkward option, creating as many problems as it solves, with an added complication if – as is likely to be the case – that some BCPs are ready while others are not.

Port operators are concerned about what would happen if vehicles would only be stopped at ports with finished facilities. Hauliers and freight owners might seek the path of least resistance and use ports where there was no inspection. This could distort trade flows, or cause overcrowding and delays at ports that do have completed facilities.

The price of delays at the ports, though, could be empty shelves in the supermarkets, something the government would be anxious to avoid, leaving little option but to ease inspection in imported goods. Once again, the government's lack of preparation is in the frame, and in one way or another, just about everybody will be paying the price.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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