Importers of cheese and charcuterie can breathe a sigh of relief. According to the Financial Times the Government’s much-feared import checks on food from Europe have been delayed once more. Jeremy Hunt apparently intervened to push the introduction of new checks from October until the New Year, following fears that they would increase food prices.
The ‘cheese blockade’ – as it was memorably described by the Daily Telegraph earlier this year – is a Defra and HMRC border policy to implement a suite of physical and documentary checks on food coming into the UK from Europe.
No such checks have been in place since Britain left the EU, and parcels of fish fingers, camembert, and Parma ham have made their way onto British dining tables with ease. This is much to the annoyance of Defra, however, whose ministers inexplicably believe that these imports pose an unacceptable risk to the United Kingdom’s biosecurity.
Despite over two years of imports of perfectly safe European food, the department has been hell-bent on imposing heavy checks, entirely out of proportion to the real-world risk, with the kind of precautionary zeal one associates with the worst of Brussels itself. The draft ‘Target Operating Model’, published this year, would have meant a series of expensive checks on food coming into Britain; they include ‘export health certificates’, signed by a vet, attached to specific products at a cost of £100 each, without which they could not even leave their country of origin.
So, from October a business importing a lorry full of 20 different cheeses from Italy and France would have had £2,000 extra costs imposed on it per shipment, and would have had to find a vet in Europe to authorise its consignment. Would enough vets even be available in Europe to sign all this extra paperwork? What impact does Defra expect these regulations to have on food prices, not only in the pre-Christmas rush, but after the worst inflation spike in decades?
The department’s assurances that British border officials would only implement light-touch checks from January 1, 2024 meant little to the logistics industry, as the new regulations would deter many firms from selling to the UK in the first place. To make things worse, there were rumours that the department did not realise quite how many cheeses are made with unpasteurised milk, and subject to expensive checks, until after the draft policy was published in April.
This is a far cry from the Government’s stated aim of creating ‘the best trade border in the world’ after Brexit. By threatening to take cheese and charcuterie off British tables with a pointless post-Brexit rule change, it is almost as if Defra was trying to write the Lib Dems’ leaflets for them. Far better, then, that this has been thrashed out around the Cabinet table, instead of waiting for the policy to create empty shelves win British shops just before Christmas.
More than that, ministers now have the opportunity to reform the policy and implement a genuinely radical approach to our trade borders, which would bring the full benefits of post-Brexit trade policy to businesses and consumers.
The solution lies in the total digitisation of the British trade border through a risk-based Trusted Trader scheme applied to the whole world, delivered using Single Trade Window, a technology platform under construction. Indeed, Defra has proposed a reasonably sensible Trusted Trader system for plant-based products, so there’s no reason not to apply this to animal-derived products as well.
This would grade products based on risk, according to their content, country of origin and the exporter’s reputation. Once a trader is allowed into the scheme, they will, crucially, be able to sign their own expert health certificates, instead of requiring expensive external verification. Without this, a Trusted Trade scheme will simply not work, as there would be no incentive for businesses to join it. This is a vital benefit which would ensure the relatively frictionless flow of goods across the trade border, while maintaining high levels of security.
Enforcement should come via heavy fines and penalties – including criminal prosecutions – for those who break the rules, with spot checks and monitoring by the Food Standards Agency and the network of Environmental Health Officers who already inspect restaurants and food businesses every day. There is no needed for an additional, expensive layer of bureaucracy – especially when inflation is so stubbornly persistent.
The great advantage here is that we do not need to devise a novel scheme. There are many single trade windows around the world for the UK to copy, and a Trusted Trade scheme has been in operation in Northern Ireland since our departure from the EU. This could be expanded to businesses from countries with whom we have trade agreements, like the CPTPP nations, who already boast high product standards.
But simply pushing back implementation of unnecessary import checks is not enough: ministers must grasp the nettle and develop this scheme before the next general election.
There’s also an important political angle here. So far it has largely gone unnoticed that Labour’s stated policy is to reduce trading frictions with Europe by signing a veterinary agreement with the EU. That might sound like a mere technical fix but its implications are far-reaching; it would lock us into permanent alignment with the bloc and kill the Government’s global trading ambitions.
There is a way to make ‘cheese blockades’ and regulatory alignment a relic of the past. A fully-digitised trade border is one of the best opportunities of Brexit. It will mark a clean break from the political paralysis we have suffered since 2016 and enable the free flow of trade and world-class technological innovation at our border. This is eminently possible, and would secure our global trade agenda. But the window to do so is fast closing, and ministers must act now to make it a reality.
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