Port at Guernsey St Peter Dock

HMRC announced plans to wave through lorries carrying goods at ports without the need for customs declarations

Food and drink leaders have slammed the government’s efforts to ease customs chaos in the event of a no-deal Brexit, saying they are under-resourced and fail to tackle many of the key problems facing suppliers.

With less than eight weeks to go before the UK is due to leave the EU, HMRC yesterday announced plans to wave through lorries carrying goods at ports such as Dover without the need for customs declarations.

The so-called Transitional Simplified Procedures (TSP) plans, which it said would remain in place for at least a year, would also see companies able to defer paying import duties in a bid to prevent huge queues at the border.

However, the BRC told The Grocer the moves failed to ease the threat of fresh food supplies grinding to a halt.

“The BRC welcomes any measures that maximise the flow of goods into the UK, which is important for retailers and consumers,” said BRC policy adviser William Bain, but he added there were “serious questions” about the proposals.

“First, we need more details on VAT. Second, there are still no deals regarding how goods movement across the Irish border will work.

“Thirdly, this announcement doesn’t deal with the bottlenecks and delays that could occur in terms of EU checks on third country goods in the event of the UK becoming a third country on 29 March.”

HMRC yesterday also urged companies to register for an Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) number, without which they will be unable to benefit from the new TSP arrangements.

However, despite the government claiming it takes “10 minutes” for companies to register for the numbers, the FDF claimed the registration process was turning into a “farce” with companies facing major delays in getting the paperwork.

“We are have been contacted by companies who say they are having trouble registering for an EORI number,” said FDF chief operating officer Tim Rycroft. “It is taking companies in some cases several weeks, not 10 minutes, to get this sorted.

“Whether this is down to the system being flooded because companies are rushing to the site as the threat of no-deal grows I don’t know, but we need the government to sort it out and make sure it is properly resourced. Business can ill afford this delay.”

Last week The Grocer reported that a survey had revealed 50% of major importing companies had not yet developed any plan for a no-deal Brexit, while a similar proportion had not yet requested an EORI.

“I believe that the proportion of companies having registered for an EORI could actually be even lower than that,” Rycroft said.

“There appears to be a hard core of smaller businesses that have decided they don’t have the resources to cope with a no-deal Brexit and are just hoping it doesn’t happen.”

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The federation also said HMRC’s customs proposals were missing key ingredients to prevent delays in the supply chain.

“The announcement by HMRC is a short-term initiative that many importers would welcome - in theory it would avoid or reduce significant delays at UK ports,” a spokesman told The Grocer.

“However, it is difficult to know what impact this might have on food and drink manufacturers as the government has yet to set import tariffs in the case of a no-deal scenario.

“It is this information that businesses desperately need and will dictate whether UK manufacturers are able to continue to access the ingredients and raw materials they need from the EU in a no-deal scenario.

“That would see UK food and drink exports to the EU, which totalled £13.3bn in 2017, facing the EU’s prohibitively high WTO most favoured nation (MFN) tariffs. Many businesses would be shut out of our most valuable export markets.”