UK ministers are set to announce a further delay to post-Brexit border controls on animal and plant products coming from the EU, amid fears that extra bureaucracy on imported goods will fuel inflation.
The decision to delay the new import regime at Britain’s ports, which had been due to start in October, is also intended to give companies and port operators yet more time to implement the arrangements.
The news comes ahead of a meeting of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee on Thursday, which is wrestling with persistently high inflation.
There have been repeated delays to the introduction of a post-Brexit border control regime for goods entering the UK from the EU. British exports to the EU are already subject to full checks.
Ministers announced as recently as April that a new “border target operating model” would start to be rolled out from October 31 with a full regime in place by October 2024.
But government insiders have told the Financial Times that while final details of the border plan would be published “very soon”, its implementation on the ground would be pushed back.
“The driving force behind this is the need to bear down on inflation, that’s why there will be a delay,” said one government insider briefed on the plan. “There will be additional costs at the border.”
A new timetable has not yet been signed off by ministers, but the start of the new regime is expected to slip into next year.
Others said businesses had to be given sufficient time to adapt to the new rules. “The effort that business has made won’t be put to waste,” said one government official. “This will happen, but there will be a delay.”
A government spokesperson confirmed ministers were carefully considering feedback from “stakeholders” to ensure they had enough time to prepare, but added: “The Border Target Operating Model will be published shortly.”
Health certification on imports of “medium-risk” products were due to start in October, with physical checks beginning in January 2024 and safety and security declarations for EU imports introduced from October 2024.
Asked if the government remained committed to that timeline, the spokesperson said the new system — which was simpler than the one originally proposed last year — would “be introduced progressively”.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, have prioritised tackling inflation and been willing to take on Brexiter orthodoxy — such as “taking control” of borders and diverging from EU rules — to cut business costs.
On Tuesday the government dropped plans for a post-Brexit UK rival to the EU’s “CE” product-quality mark, after businesses warned that ministers were tying up companies in red tape.
Sunak told broadcaster LBC on Wednesday that inflation was not falling as fast as he would like, but claimed it would be “completely transformative” for the public when it returned to lower levels; food prices have risen especially fast.
In a briefing document for industry last April, the government insisted — in bold text — that it was its “firm intention” to press ahead with the first phase of border controls in October this year after four separate delays. It was originally supposed to have started in July 2021.
The food industry warned last June that plans to charge a flat-rate inspection fee of up to £43 on each consignment of food coming from the EU would drive up food prices, with the government estimating total additional costs of EU controls at £420mn a year.
Under the proposed controls that were due to be introduced on October 31, EU exporters of food products to the UK would have required “export health certificates” costing several hundred euros each and requiring a physical sign-off by a veterinary surgeon.
Shane Brennan, the head of the Cold Chain Federation lobby group, said any decision to delay the introduction of October requirements was the “right thing to do” given inflationary pressures and the lack of awareness in the EU about the incoming controls.
A survey of Cold Chain Federation members last July found that 40 per cent of their EU-based clients and suppliers were unaware of the incoming requirements.
The British Chambers of Commerce also said delaying the October controls was “sensible” given current inflation rates, but warned that any plan to introduce new paperwork and physical checks at the border simultaneously next year would require the necessary port infrastructure to be ready.
Nick von Westenholz, director of trade at the National Farmers Union, acknowledged that the government needed to protect consumers from price rises, but said that yet another delay would exasperate many farmers, who face barriers for their exports which are not being reciprocated on imports from the EU.
“We need proportionate, light-touch checks in place that can both keep costs for importers to a minimum while properly managing biosecurity risks,” he said. “Government must quickly set out a clear and concrete timetable for the new import regime, so we have a level playing field for UK growers and producers.”