Food businesses encountered “significant problems” on the Irish Sea border this week as a raft of incomplete paperwork and a reportedly overwhelmed government-funded support service plagued the first week of the post-Brexit trading regime, MPs heard on Wednesday.
Northern Irish trade groups told MPs that many British companies had been unable to prepare for new customs requirements because of the last-minute trade deal.
Under the NI protocol, all food and drink entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain must now comply with EU customs rules including import declarations and customs forms.
Seamus Leheny, policy manager at Logistics UK, said six of the first 15 lorryloads on the first ferry to reach Belfast Port on 1 January were held back because they didn’t have the correct documentation. Meanwhile, a Northern Ireland haulier had sent 285 trucks to Great Britain since 1 January, only to have 100 of them return back across the Irish Sea, he added.
“One large manufacturer in Great Britain had 15 lorryloads of food to go to Northern Ireland this week. Not a single one of them could move because when the lorries arrived there was no customs declaration and the operator quite rightly said ‘there is no point in me lifting these because I’ll simply be detained or refused entry’,” he told Parliament’s Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee.
One senior food industry source said a fifth of lorries arriving at Holyhead were being turned around. Around two thirds of the issues were due to the new booking system, they said, while the other third was due to inadequate paperwork.
The UK government has funded a new Trader Support Service to deal with the new paperwork requirements. However, Leheny said the system was “not good enough”, often taking several hours to process paperwork having initially promised all declarations could be completed within 30 seconds.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the issues at the border this week were “just the opening skirmishes” given that many businesses had stockpiled to avoid trading across the border for the initial part of the year. He suggested many of the issues had been exacerbated by the government’s failure to accurately communicate the changes.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, tweeted on 1 January “there is no ‘Irish Sea Border’”. Speaking this week on BBC Radio Ulster, he accepted that “things will be different, particularly in the first few days … but I think people will see, as things settle down, that things will flow as they did in 2020.”