EU Referendum

Brexit: a license to print rubbish


There is perhaps one thing more stupid than a Daily Mail journalist in general, and that is a Daily Mail journalist writing about Brexit and customs procedures for imported goods. Such a person is Robert Hardman, who recently spent a little time at Felixtowe Port looking at the systems there, demonstrating that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.

His experience, he tells us is "proof" that the "Remainer row over EU Customs Union is claptrap". His headline declares: "There's barely a customs officer in sight at Felixstowe which handles £80bn of goods a year... so why all the hysteria about the Irish border with its £3bn trade?"

As Harman gets stuck into his story, he asserts that, "ten months from now, according to the doom-mongers, we could be back on rations for the first time since the Fifties. With lines of lorries backing up more than 30 miles from the Channel ports, Britain will face gridlock and food shortages".

Going on in similar vein, he writes: "For a hellish mess of endless paperwork and bureaucracy lies in wait if we leave the European customs union and the frictionless trade which comes with it", while "things will be even worse on the island of Ireland as the terrorists disinter their hidden stashes of Kalashnikovs and Semtex to wage war on any British attempts to reimpose a post Brexit border between North and South".

You can read the rest for yourself, if you so wish, but the thrust of his story is that a huge number of containers come through the post from places such as Indonesia and Hong Kong. Of those non-EU goods, Hardman says, 98 percent will pass through here as easily as EU goods, "for the simple reason that most have cleared customs before they even touch British soil".

They do so, he says, using a tried-and-tested digital cargo-tracking system developed in Felixstowe, known as Destin8. It has worked so well for more than a decade that it now processes most of the non-EU maritime trade coming into this country.

Never mind that Southampton might argue with that, handling as much volume as Felixstowe, or the London ports, which handle significantly more. What Mr Hardman wants to know is: how difficult would it be to adapt this acclaimed system if Britain left the customs union, so that it also had to include all the EU trade coming in to Felixstowe?

The rhetorical question gets the answer, "a minute or so", involving "a few extra keystrokes", according to Alan Long, chief executive of MCP, the company behind Destin8.

However, what Mr Hardman doesn't tell us is that, from destinations in Indonesia, goods may have to notified to the authorities up to nine days before they are shipped, in order to clear all the formalities.

Then, before the goods even move away from the quayside, the details have been notified electronically to the customs authorities in the UK, who have at least 20 days to make a decision as to whether they need to be inspected.

Compare and contrast the Ro-Ro traffic from Calais to Dover, where the cargoes and destinations are not declared until the trucks actually arrive at their departure ports, and can then be rolling off the ramp two hours later – or less than an hour if travelling via the Eurotunnel. That is how much time Customs have to process information, hours as opposed to the weeks that containers take to arrive.

Then, in terms of volume, UK major ports handle over 100 million tonnes of Ro-Ro traffic, compared with 65 million tonnes in containers. And, of that Ro-Ro traffic, some 17 thousand arriving vessels are handled by Dover Port alone, accounting for 27 percent of all UK Ro-Ro arrivals. Total value handled through the port is roughly £120 billion a year, 50 percent more than Felixstowe.

Hardman acknowledges that, even at Felixstowe, two percent of shipments are checked, which in the context of Dover would, on the face of it, equate to 200 lorries on average each day, with the loads being physically inspected, in a port where there are no facilities at all for inspection of cargoes.

Actually, he admits, every year, 80,000 of the four million containers passing through Felixstowe are cracked open and checked for any number of infringements. But none of these consignments are time-sensitive fresh foods or "just in time" automotive components that must be at their final destinations within minutes of their appointed time.

We've also had evidence that three-quarters of the border interventions at Felixstowe are by Suffolk Coastal District Council, on port health issues. Their officers opened the majority of containers.

Currently, Dover shippers will doubtless be pleased to know, the Port of Felixstowe and the Council have been working together to bring down clearance times.

There is, they says, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the port and the Council and they meet daily to plan the examinations for the following day. The Port of Felixstowe, we are told, has set out a target time for examinations of two days after landing with a maximum of three days.

Even that situation would be disastrous at Dover or Calais but there is not even that promise. Unlike Felixstowe, there are no Border Inspection Posts (BIP) and little spare capacity in Northern France. UK goods might have to go to Zeebrugge in order to be inspected, and even there the capacity is limited. In the UK there is simply no capacity at all.

But on top of the cargo inspections, all vehicles carrying food must stop for a compulsory document check, either at the BIP or a designated point of entry (for plant-based materials). Again no facilities exist for this. There is another issue here. While container cargoes tend in the main to be single consignments, anything up to thirty percent of cross Channel truck-loads may be groupage (mixed loads), averaging out at about 20 consignments per load.

The enormity of this, I wrote in March 2017, has not even begun to register. You may be looking at 12,000 trucks a day through Dover and the tunnel, but that could equates to 100,000 consignments or so, which is what matters for the purposes of customs and veterinary checks. The paperwork alone will be crippling, and the food inspection system would be looking at thousands of consignments a day.

Nevertheless that, according to Robert Hardman, is the Project Fear vision of Britain in March 2019. The 98 percent of non-EU goods that pass through Felixstowe do so "as easily as EU goods", for the simple reason that "most have cleared customs before they even touch British soil".

No content with that, he tells us that most of the containers, once unloaded, "will be on a rail wagon or lorry to somewhere in Britain within hours". Just unloading the vessel, though, may take 20 hours.

For a container to be collected, the haulier must be given a time slot, which can vary from between 30 minutes and three hours. But the lorry can only collect a container once three conditions are met: the container is in the stack, duties are accounted for and customs have released the cargo.

With the introduction of the Vehicle Booking System (VBS) it is feasible for a lorry to spend just 35-45 minutes within the port gates, but this doesn't include waiting outside the port gates for the three conditions to be met. Hauliers report that the average time to collect a container, including waiting outside the port, is 1.5 hours. Consequently, the hauliers generally allow 1 – 1.5 hours in their planning for the delivery and collection of a container at any of the major ports.

Getting reliable information on how long it actually takes from berthing of the ship to collection of an individual container is notoriously difficult, not least because it is commercially sensitive information in a highly competitive environment.

I saw one forum suggesting a period of 1-3 working days, if all the paperwork is in order. Later documentation suggests an average of six hours wait after clearance, while another suggests that it can take four hours after clearance to collect the load, for non-account holders.

It can take "significantly longer" overall if customs hold the shipment. but it is important to understand that, only once the shipment cleared is a collection slot allocated, Even now, with automated clearance, the whole process, from quayside to gate can take 1-2 days – and that applies to goods from the EU as well. Thus, even with containerised EU goods, the customs authorities would have far more time than is allowed for Ro-Ro traffic.

And even then, in Felixstowe, that is as long as the winds do not exceed operational limits, otherwise the port is closed. There are also backlogs and delays during such times, and also during public holidays.

Contrary to Hardman's assertions, therefore, Felixstowe cannot provide a model for how the Channel ports will operate. The time taken just to unload and process a container is many multiples of the time it takes to get a Ro-Ro vehicle across the Channel.

Despite this, on the basis of his flawed example, Hardman would have us believe that, after going through a customs clearance procedure that is not required for EU goods, Channel ports handling Ro-Ro traffic should have no problems after Brexit, even though Customs officials have only a fraction of the time they have available to process containers.

In Hardman's estimation, therefore, the millions of customs documents which will now accompany goods destined to travel through the Channel ports can be processed in hours rather than weeks, despite no systems existing to process them. Similarly, the tens of thousands of inspections – where before there were none – can be performed flawlessly in non-existent facilities by non-existent personnel.

The only acknowledgement that there might possibly be problems comes from Harman's champion, Alan Long. With shorter transit times, a different system will be needed to handle a similar lorryload between Calais and Dover or Fishguard and Dublin, he says, but he has "no doubt a solution will be found".

"The logistics industry always finds a way to do these things", Long assures Hardman. "It will just be a hybrid system". But says Hardman, Long "can't be more specific for now as his company is in the midst of designing the answer".

That is the level of debate we're getting in this country, on top of which Hardman discounts any problems at the Irish border. Those peddling "alarmist nonsense" should take a trip to the end of the A14 (where Felixstowe resides), and then apologise.

The worst of it is that there will be thousands of gullible little Muppets who today read this tosh in their Daily Mail and believe every word. One can see this already from the online comments. "Some desperate remainers trying to downplay what they know to be true, Brexit would be easy but for remainers wanting to remain and the EU not wanting other COUNTRIES to leave", says one.

To proffer such nonsense in such a politically-charged atmosphere is the equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded auditorium. It is plain irresponsible and people are going to get hurt as a result. But hey! We have a "free" press in this country – a license to print rubbish.