Brexit: Gove confirms plans for checks on goods crossing Irish Sea

Brexit

Minister says checks on animals and food products will be necessary to maintain island of Ireland’s ‘disease-free status’




One of the border inspection posts for agri-food arrivals will be at Belfast port.Photograph: David Lyons/Alamy Stock Photo

The government has confirmed for the first time there will be Brexit checks on animals and food goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK from next January. Michael Gove said such a step would be necessary to ensure the entire island of Ireland maintained “disease-free status”, with border inspection posts for agri-food arrivals at Belfast port, Belfast international airport, Belfast City airport and Warrenpoint Port. There would also be “expanded infrastructure” at some of these sites with Larne Port, where checks on live animals area already carried out, designated the principal port for livestock after Brexit.

Details of the checks were disclosed in a 23-page document released by the government on Wednesday. The minimal nature of the process set out by Gove will provide reassurance to some business and political leaders opposed to the checks, primarily the Democratic Unionist party, but is likely to spark a fresh row over the Irish border with the EU. According to the statement, there will be no customs fees payable on goods remaining in the region.

Neither will there be security certificates for goods going in either direction. These are the so-called exit and entry declaration forms that former Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay revealed would be needed for goods traded in both directions. The certificates are part of a security-certification process agreed for all goods entering and exiting the EU territory that were agreed after 9/11, and questions will be raised as to whether the UK can unilaterally decide not to comply with them.

Under a four-point plan, Gove pledged:

  • Trade going from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK would “take place as it does now”.

  • Tariffs would not be levied on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

  • There would be “some limited additional process on goods arriving in Northern Ireland” from Great Britain.

  • Trade to and from Northern Ireland from third countries outside the EU would be handled under the agreements the UK secures for the country as a whole.

Gove’s pledge not to apply tariffs to goods transported to Northern Ireland from Great Britain complies with the spirit of the deal struck between Boris Johnson and the EU in January. But Brussels had envisaged that customs controls would apply to all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, with rebates on tariffs for goods that did not go on to the Republic of Ireland. Sources say the government has come under pressure from big supermarket chains among other businesses who have argued if they are delivering consignments to shoppers in Northern Ireland a tariff-charge and charge back arrangement would lead to costly and unnecessary paperwork.

On security certificates on goods, Gove confirmed: “There will … be no export declaration, exit declaration, or customs and regulatory clearance for any goods as they leave the rest of the UK for Northern Ireland.” Gove admitted there would be “some limited additional process on goods arriving in Northern Ireland” but promised it would “conducted taking account of all flexibilities and discretion”. He said: “Our proposals will deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the whole of the UK market.”

In the statement, Gove pledged: “What the protocol does not do is create – nor does it include any provision for creating – any kind of international border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” He promises the checks would involve “the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences for business and traders, particularly those carrying out their affairs entirely within the UK customs territory”. The government has said, however, that “some new administrative process” will apply for traders because the deal requires the UK to apply EU customs rules to goods entering Northern Ireland.

Gove said the government would ensure the process was “streamlined” and would publish plans in detail for “extensive HMRC support” for those businesses affected. He also pledged to review the processes annually and, “if they should turn out to impose a disproportionate burden on goods moving wholly in the UK”, the government would consider how the red tape could be reduced. The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, welcomed the plan, revealing discussions on agri-food had been “difficult and sensitive”.

But she warned that the UK deal must ensure it “does not saddle individual Northern Ireland businesses with further costly administrative burdens” that would lead to increased costs for local consumers. Claire Hanna, the Social Democratic and Labour party MP for Belfast South, said Gove had “finally confirmed there will be a large increase in the amount of red tape” for businesses and warned that “castles in the air” such as trade deals with the US would lead to increased checks in the Irish Sea. Discussing the papers in the House of Commons, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, said: “We welcome the statement today but it does expose the broken promises made by the prime minister.

Today there has been an admission, for the first time, that there will be additional checks, that there will be tariffs on goods at risk of entering the single market. “Even now, many fear that the government are not willing to admit the full extent of those. We have seven months to get this right and we must.”

Gove responded: “The approach that we’ve taken is designed to ensure the maximum level of security for the businesses of Northern Ireland and if the protocol is implemented in line with our approach that means they will have unfettered access to the rest of the UK’s internal market and also free access to the EU’s single market.

“That is a great prize and one that I believe all businesses in Northern Ireland would want us to help them to grasp.”

An EU spokesman said the commission welcomed the proposal and would now study it in detail.

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