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UK ports grappling with ‘shambolic’ Brexit black hole of information

UK ports and shipping businesses are still unable to start post-Brexit planning due to the overwhelming lack of detail being issued by the UK government

Brexit had fallen down the industry agenda as it grappled with the coronavirus pandemic, but following the publication of a new industry consultation and the emergence of a new untested and unfinished government IT system to control incomplete border control process and unwritten infrastructure requirements, the opaque roadmap to the UK’s EU exit is now back on everyone’s to do list

WITH six months to go until Britain imposes post-Brexit border checks on European Union goods, UK ports lack sufficient clarity to start building the required infrastructure, have no clear guidance on the required detail of border processes and now have to contend with a government IT system that the head of the government’s own expert customs panel has described as “shambolic and amateurish”. 

Following several months of near radio silence from government departments sidetracked by the coronavirus pandemic, the UK ports sector is currently being bombarded with communications daily as plans for the UK to leave the EU rapidly ramp up.

Two weeks ago news quietly started to emerge that a government-led IT system, the Goods Vehicle Movement Service, was about to be introduced to help goods flow across Britain’s borders and cut queues. That was swiftly followed by an 89-page consultation document circulated by the government to trade groups setting out draft policy on the EU border processes.

Since then, port officials report a daily barrage of Brexit activity and communications as government departments race to avoid blockages at the border with the European Union, its biggest trading partner. 

The draft consultation document, seen by Lloyd’s List, sets out the basic processes that everyone moving goods between Britain and the EU will need to follow from January 1, 2021, a second phase of processes introduced from April 1, 2021 for food and other organic imports and finally the full introduction of controls from July 1, 2021. 

The document details how operators would have to follow a “prelodgement” model — where trucks carrying goods must file their paperwork electronically before arrival in the UK — or follow the same “Temporary Storage” arrangements as cargo arrivals from the rest of the world.

However, the document contains several blank pages where detail on the import processes are yet to be finalised and contains no information on how government plans to enforce the new pre-clearance processes that are being rolled out on an untested IT system still under development. 

And therein lies the problem — UK ports know that post-Brexit border control infrastructure needs to be built, but they lack the basic details that would allow them to start construction and planning. 

The concern is even more pressing for those involved in moving freight from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, where GVMS comes fully into force from January 1, 2021.

Lloyd’s List understands that there is significant concern from most big port operators regarding the current lack of clarity on required specifications, the time it will take to deliver infrastructure, the consistency and fairness between locations with onsite and offsite border facilities as well as some basic concern on the emerging border processes now being slowly filtered through government communications. 

UK port officials report that the little information they have received suggests that the new processes will make existing well-functioning border processes more difficult and more expensive while channelling traffic to routes with higher underlying risk of disruption.

Like much of Brexit planning, the emergence of The Goods Vehicle Movement Service came as a surprise to the maritime sector. 

Nobody Lloyd’s List has spoken to at a senior level in the UK ports sector had heard of it until two weeks ago. 

Details remain scant and testing has not begun, but GVMS is essentially a vehicle bookings system that controls truck entry into ports, validated against pre-entered goods movement records and linked to back office port processes, HM Revenue & Customs and the new border protocols.

The issue is that nobody has any clarity on what those processes and protocols are.

“It’s based on a flow of data that we don’t have and it’s been devised without any thought of how things actually work in the real world – it’s a shambles, the whole thing is just amateurish,” said Peter MacSwiney, chairman of the UK government’s expert customs panel, the Joint Customs Consultative Committee (JCCC) & EU Transition Sub Group.

“I’m bemused as to what we’ve been talking about for the past three years,” he told Lloyd’s List. “We’ve been looking at this in depth and we might as well have not bothered. There’s been no external engagement of any real worth for the first six months of this year and then a couple of weeks ago Boris [Johnson] announces there will be no extensions and from there on it’s like the greyhound has been let out of the trap. It’s too late and besides, they’re coming out with things they’ve clearly already decided.”

Despite the lack of detail and some internal scepticism regarding the government’s chequered history regarding delivery of major IT projects, industry officials are more sanguine regarding the delivery of GVMS.

Along with the rest of the industry, the UK Chamber of shipping is reviewing the implications and is locked up in detailed technical discussion with HMRC following the publication of their draft new operating model.

“The model imposes complicated new reporting requirements which will require new IT systems and infrastructure in ports to handle UK trade with our closest EU neighbours,” UK Chamber chief executive Bob Sanguinetti told Lloyd’s List in a statement.

“We are working the haulage industry, individual ports and other stakeholders to prioritise actions and reduce impacts particularly on the roll on roll off sector,” he said.

The chief concern among port sector executives is less about the potential for IT snarl-ups, which are expected and solvable — the more pressing issue is what the plans don’t say about the requirements for new infrastructure that will not be ready for the January deadline if direction is not given immediately.  

“Yes, we have some concerns about GVMS, but the feeling is that ultimately it will be workable. We’re more worried about the physical reality of what happens in the ground,” said Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group. “You can’t work around the fact that we are currently uncertain of the specification of what we need to build.”

While government officials bristle at the suggestion that their history in delivering IT projects is problematic, there is a high level acceptance that some turbulence should be expected. 

“You have to accept we will need some friction. We will minimise it but it is an inevitability of our departure,” Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told delegates at event in February, entitled 'Preparing Our Border for the Future Relationship'.

And he should know. The fact that the Border Delivery Group – the unit overseeing the government’s plans for the UK border after the Brexit transition period — moved from HM Revenue and Customs to the Cabinet Office, under Mr Gove’s control, at the beginning of June has been taken as a signifier of the centralised control now being imposed on the process.

Responding to Lloyd’s List’s questions regarding the lack of available detail for the UK ports sector to proceed, a government spokesperson said that a border operating model will be published “in July 2020”, adding that consultation with key stakeholders on the issues raised would be taking place “over the coming weeks”.

A government statement, issued by HMRC, responding to Lloyd’s List said: “We are continuing our preparations for the end of the transition period and the introduction of new border controls, including by providing £84m ($104m) to grow the customs intermediary sector to encompass EU trade after 2020.

“We are regularly engaging with industry as plans develop, in particular with regard to a new IT system that will facilitate movement at the border.”

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