Shipping transport

About 30 million customs declaration are expected each year for GB-NI

The necessary customs software for moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland may not be fully rolled out for more than a year after the end of the Brexit transition period, customs experts have warned.

It could leave many businesses awaiting clarity on their Northern Ireland arrangements well into 2022. A fifth of suppliers already intend to stop supplying the region during the initial months of next year due to the uncertainty, according to a recent survey by the FDF.

The estimated 30 million annual customs declaration for moving goods from GB-NI will be handled by HMRC’s computer system known as the Customs Declaration Service – a system that remains “untested”, according to Elizabeth de Jong, policy director at Logistics UK.

The government insists CDS will be ready by 1 January. However, the customs operators who will provide the interface to connect to the system have now warned that even if CDS is ready in time, it could take them until 2022 to integrate their technology and roll out the system to all businesses.

Steve Bartlett, chairman of the Association of Freight Software Suppliers, said some companies may be able to access the system within the first few months of the year, but it would take “at least 12 months” to deploy it to all businesses. The government was warned of the issue more than a year ago, he said.

“[A complete rollout] is not going to happen in under six to 12 months,” said Peter MacSwiney, chairman of ASM, a customs software provider. “If you got it done in six months, you’ve really done well.”

The prospect of no comprehensive customs system has raised questions over how goods will be treated when moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from next year. “We’ve been asking for the last three months what’s going to happen on the first of January. We have no idea,” said MacSwiney.

Luke Hindlaugh, senior EU and international trade executive, said many businesses would have to rely on the Trader Support Service (TSS) to interact with the Customs Declaration System (CDS), a government-funded customs system, which is expected to be more time-intensive than other commercial solutions due to its requirement to input each product’s data manually from traders. “It looks like there’s one plan for Northern Ireland and it’s TSS for customs. So if that doesn’t work, there’s not much else left.”

A report by the National Audit Office last week criticised the government for concluding in April 2020 that CDS would require “substantial re-engineering”. It is a failure that the public watchdog claimed HMRC allowed to happen despite knowing since 2017 that CDS would be required to handle a “very significant increase in customs declarations”.

Tate & Lyle emerged this week as the latest business to warn of disruption to food supplies in Northern Ireland because of the ongoing uncertainty. The company, a prominent backer of Brexit, has advised supermarkets to make contingency plans to source sugar and syrup from elsewhere, according to ITV News.

But Gerald Mason, senior VP at Tate & Lyle, has no plans to cut supplies altogether. “Because we’ve been quite responsible and been open with our customers about the challenges, obviously some have interpreted that as we’re preparing to withdraw from the market, which we’re absolutely not.”

“We’d like to see the UK and the EU come up with a common-sense view that recognises there is little risk to allowing existing trade to continue.”

A government spokesperson said: “The delivery of IT systems necessary for the end of the transition period is on track. As a responsible government we continue to make extensive preparations for a range of fallback scenarios.

“We have been working with key delivery partners to support preparations for CDS, and we will continue to work with them to support their preparations for the end of the transition period.”