UK to spend £355m on checks Johnson assured us were “absolutely” not needed

Anne Burgess / Port of Larne
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Boris Johnson told Sophy Ridge at Sky News on 8 December last year there would be no new customs checks on goods shipped from Britain into Northern Ireland and that Labour were “wrong” to suggest there would be. “We’re a UK government, why would we put checks on goods going from NI to GB or GB to NI? It doesn’t make sense” he added.

The publication on Friday of a policy paper shows either how empty that particular promise was or the extent of the prime minister’s ignorance about the details of an agreement he was happy to sign last year. The paper describes the extraordinary number of additional checks and formalities required on goods moving from GB to NI after the transition period. And the list is not yet complete, with more details to come later.

We learn that a new Trader Support Service will require £200m to help businesses complete digital processes when ‘importing’ goods into Northern Ireland and a further £155m to fund the development of new technology to ensure the new processes can be fully digital and streamlined.

These are processes that Boris Johnson, just eight months ago, said were “absolutely not” needed. It does not bode well for the outcome of the present future relationship talks where mastery of the small print may be even more vital.

The policy paper explains almost sheepishly that there will be “some changes” and begins by setting out what will remain the same. This list is just two items long – no new customs infrastructure and no exit declarations from GB to NI. It then proceeds to try and persuade us that the much longer list of things that will change, will do so smoothly and so easily that hardly anyone will notice. Unfortunately, the details are not convincing.

Manufacturers who self-certify or use an EU certification body will continue to apply the CE mark and their goods “will be valid for the UK market, and the whole of the EU market”. That’s the easy part to understand. Where it gets complicated is if they choose to use a UK-recognised certification body, in which case the CE mark must be accompanied by a UK(NI) mark, the rules for which have not yet been published. But goods with both a CE and a UK(NI) mark “cannot be placed on the EU market” because UK-conformity assessment bodies “will not be recognised in the EU”.

In other words, marking something UK(NI) will render the goods unsaleable in the EU.  Why would anyone do it? Where is the upside? So much for the UK and EU being sovereign equals.

And there’s also a UKCA mark – rules also not yet published. British manufacturers who stamp goods with a UKCA mark (equivalent to the EU CE mark) will have a problem because the paper makes clear that harmonised goods carrying only the UKCA mark will not be valid for the Northern Ireland market or the EU. British companies exporting the same goods to the EU, NI and their own domestic market could require three different conformity assessment labels.

EU certification bodyCEEverywhere
UK certification bodyCE UK(NI)UK (not EU)
UK certification bodyUKCABritain only (not NI or EU)

Non-harmonised goods will no longer automatically benefit from the EU mutual recognition principle for placing on the EU market. Mutual recognition applies to ‘non-harmonised goods, such as foodstuffs, furniture, vehicles or precious metals. These are goods that are not already covered by EU-wide legislation setting common requirements that all products of that type must meet before being placed on the market. Such goods may no longer be acceptable in the EU at all.

NI-based distributors and suppliers will need to take on the legal role of ‘importer’ and become responsible for ensuring goods are labelled with their own details such as company name, registered trade mark, contact address and so on. They must assume responsibility to ensure the correct conformity assessment procedures have been carried out and goods are marked accordingly, and that manufacturers hold all the correct technical documentation and comply with all relevant essential requirements. For many this will be a huge change.

There will be new customs formalities and all businesses who will be managing customs operations will need an Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) number.

Tariffs will be payable on goods ‘at risk’ of moving into the Republic, but what goods these are is awaiting a decision of the UK-EU Joint Committee. Yet another IT system called the Trader Support Service (TSS) will be provided to help traders and will apparently be ready for September. Companies who elect not to use TSS will have access to “simplified” declarations.

Further guidance is a much overused phrase in the text, appearing ten times – in connection with goods at risk, Royal Mail parcels, transit movements, VAT and excise payments, pre-notification of agri-goods movements, endangered species, NI registered fishing vessels, organic goods and natural mineral water. 

A graphic helpfully explains what ‘guidance’ the department is waiting for and where decisions are to be made. It is not a short list and fills three columns.

Agri-food products subject to controls have to enter NI via designated points of entry and many will need pre-notification as well as export health certificates and phytosanitary certificates. A new digital online application service, EHC Online (EHCO) is being provided to “streamline the process”. Remember these have not been needed hitherto so streamlining the process is a curious and relative term.

Plant protection products/pesticides will need authorisation by the UK Health and Safety Executive before being shipped to NI. Businesses moving fluorinated gases from GB to NI need to be registered on the EU Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) registry and movements have to be notified online.

Anyone moving ozone depleting substances (ODS) to NI needs to be registered on the EU ODS licensing system. The GB-based exporter will require an export licence from the Environment Agency.

A pre-export notification may need to be sent to the EU for category 1 drug precursors being shipped to Northern Ireland. This can take up to 15 days for the relevant authority to consider the notification.

Tobacco and e-cigarettes will need to comply with EU directives and feature the EU picture library.

These are just a selection of the new hoops traders – de facto exporters as of January next year – will need to jump through in an extraordinary and expensive bureaucratic burden required to move goods around the United Kingdom single market, all negotiated by the prime minister’s adviser and agreed to by the prime minister himself as well as a majority of MPs in parliament. And for once, Boris Johnson was right – it doesn’t make sense.

This is part of a £650m package announced by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove on a visit to the province on Friday along with NI minister Brandon Lewis.

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