by BFFF
Jul 28th, 2021
8 mins
BFFF

Last week the Government published a Command Paper on the Northern Ireland Protocol: The Way Forward. The paper outlines the extreme challenges being faced by GB businesses in exporting goods to Northern Ireland (NI).

Whilst, the Government re-affirms its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, they also now understand the immense burden the current Northern Ireland Protocol will place on the food supply chain.

Despite significant investment by the Government into various schemes to support business, at a cost of just over £1bn, they are now waking up to what the Federation and our members have been saying for months – namely, the requirement for full export declaration is virtually impossible given the nature of trade between GB and NI.

The reality is the use of Export Health Certificates (EHCs) has traditionally been used for full load shipments of relatively simple products – to now expect our members to provide such detailed export documentation on composite products in mixed loads is impossible.

To date, the majority of goods going into NI are covered by the Authorised Trader Scheme and as such only require a STAMNI declaration – even this simplified process is creating challenges.

We are aware that Government has been working on a Digital Assistance Scheme (DAS) which will hopefully mean the process becomes paperless and far more streamlined. However, this is still in the development phase, and to date there is an estimated cost of £150m to develop the system.

Even with this system, hopefully up and running by October 21st, there will remain a great deal of complexity in servicing NI.

We have heard of members who have reduced the range of products being sold into the province, or indeed, some who have decided the level of sales is not worth the cost, or disruption, to their business and have withdrawn from the market. We fear, with the introduction of full export paperwork as planned in January 2021, staged across categories, we will see even more companies reconsider sales into NI.

It is also a very strange agreement in that we no longer have control over the food industry in one part of the United Kingdom. This will bring complexities such as who has control over the withdrawal of a product from the NI market – the FSA or the European Food Standards Agency? Also, what happens when food standards diverge? Will it be viable for members to make dedicated products for NI?

The UK Food Industry has always operated to a very high standard, often leading the way in the EU, therefore, I fail to understand why we cannot find a way to agree equivalence in standards. Our members manufacturing sites operate to very high standards, mostly verified through independent third-party audits. All of this backed up by legislation based upon EU standards, therefore, why must we have vets, who often have less experience than the manufacturing teams they are dealing with, to approve the goods?

The Command Paper suggests a much simpler process built upon ‘trust’ and using the vast amount of information that companies already have. Now, I suppose the keyword in this paragraph is ‘trust’ – from standing on the outside it appears that the politicians on both sides ‘do not trust one another’ so I feel it will be very difficult for the UK Government to persuade the EU to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol, something that was only concluded in December 2020. Although the news on Wednesday that the EU is suspending its legal action over the unilateral decision by the UK Govt to extend the grace period on exports to NI is a good sign

In my role as CEO of the Federation, I have been involved in many meetings, forums, roundtables, and discussions on the challenges being faced by BFFF members and the food industry in general, therefore, what amazes me is why the Government ever signed up to the protocol in the first place? They must not have understood how the modern food supply chain works – if they had they would have realised that what they were signing up to was impossible to deliver.

The signs are not good for a major re-think by the EU – in fact, I think it took them less than 3 hours to reject the Command Paper. Hopefully the implied threat within the document to invoke Article 16 may persuade Brussels that discussion on a ‘new way forward’ may be in the interest of both sides.

My concern remains that ideology rather than practicality will prevail.

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