The government’s Northern Ireland border plans, announced this week, have fuelled a brewing backlash among industry figures who fear the sector’s long-term challenges in the region have not been addressed.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Michael Gove confirmed supermarkets will be given a three month ‘grace period’ on export health certificates for animal and plant products from 1 January, and a six-month exemption from meat products having to be frozen before export.
Gove said the move will help supermarkets adapt to the upcoming changes. “We know that some supermarkets are already ready. One or two others need time in order to get ready.” He also announced a trusted trader scheme for the major retailers to avoid potential tariffs if a trade deal is not agreed.
The move was welcomed by supermarkets, although Aodhán Connolly, director of Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said “retailers are still unsure about the exact processes needed to move food to Northern Ireland.”
A lack of clarify on whether the plans will also apply to independent retailers, wholesalers, and suppliers has left many concerned supermarkets are being unfairly prioritised. Retail NI CEO Glyn Roberts said the move “could potentially result in a third of our local independent food and grocery sector being at a competitive disadvantage to large supermarkets.” More than 30 trade bodies warned in October that unequal treatment for the supermarkets would be “anti-competitive” and lead to reduced choice and higher prices for Northern Irish shoppers.
“This could be another example of mis-placed special treatment for supermarkets by the government,” said James Bielby, CEO of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors.
The grace period has left others questioning what happens next. “If they’re saying that the cliff edge has moved back by three or six months from 1 January, that’s not a solution. That’s just moving the cliff edge,” said Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association.
The short time until 1 January has already led almost 40% of suppliers to plan to pause or reduce supplies to Northern Ireland for the first few months of the year, a recent FDF survey revealed. The FDF has assembled a list 171 questions needing clarification from government on post-Brexit changes. Almost half are still unanswered, including 14 specifically on Northern Ireland.
FDF CEO Ian Wright told the Commons business committee on Tuesday that situation in Northern Ireland was a “complete shambles”, adding “the idea that you can prepare for a change as big as this in the time left is ridiculous.”