British businesses are increasingly worried that the UK government’s planned system to check goods heading to the European Union won’t be ready in time for when the Brexit transition period ends in 2021.
Boris Johnson’s government plans to bring in an entirely new IT system to help check goods heading to the European Union from the start of January.
However, leading UK business groups have told Business Insider that the government has failed to confirm to them how the system will work and whether it will be fully functional in time.
One senior figure who is in close contact with the government about its Brexit plans told Business Insider that the government “just don’t know” how the new arrangements will work.
“We’re probably more engaged with the government than we’ve ever been,” they said.
“The problem isn’t the engagement, it’s the answers. They just don’t know [how this will work]. And we are getting to the point where these answers need to be the priority for the government, or we will have chaos on day one and for many days afterwards.”
Once Britain leaves the Brexit transition period and the European Single Market next January, the government plans to implement a new IT system to manage the additional border checks that will be needed.
The system is known as the Goods Vehicle Movement Service, or GVMS, as reported by Bloomberg this week.
Under the plans, truckers transporting goods are set to need a GVMS reference number before being allowed to depart for the EU. They will do this by digitally submitting information about what they’re transporting. Their reference numbers will be checked by customs officials at locations that are yet to be specified but are set to be away from Britain’s borders.
However, multiple business and industry groups affected by these plans have told Business Insider that the UK government has up to now failed to guarantee that this new IT system will be fully operational by January 1.
This, they say, means there is a prospect of truckers being subject to stringent checks by customs officials in Calais and elsewhere in the EU from January 1, creating chaos and delay at Britain’s borders with its biggest trading partner.
One senior industry figure engaged in talks with the government, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was a “glaring omission” from the information they received about the GVMS system this week.
Another figure engaged with the government, the Road Haulage Association’s Rod McKenzie, said confusion over how the IT system would work — and whether it’d be ready on time — was “a cocktail for potential disaster at the moment.”
He told Business Insider: “The worry over this new IT system is massive. You wouldn’t think you’d choose to run an entirely new and complex system with a bit of IT kit that nobody quite knows will actually work.
“The French might be helpful when it comes to UK imports staying in France — but what about those going further afield? It’s so unclear and so frustrating.”
He added: “We’re going to have a new customs border process but we don’t yet know what it is. We don’t know what we will have to do to export goods to the EU. We’re reliant on an IT system which we don’t know will work.
“Any reasonable person would look at that and think ‘there might be a problem here’.”
Figures in the logistics industry point out that it took France well over a year to develop and test its own IT system for checks brought about by Brexit, whereas HMRC is trying to create its own in just six months. The French system was trialed a number of times before being deemed sufficient.
The GVMS will also cover customs checks on goods heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from next year.
The heads of two Northern Irish ports — Larne and Foyle — on Wednesday told the Northern Irish assembly’s infrastructure committee they were doubtful that the GVMS would be ready in time for January 1.
Brian McGrath, who heads Foyle port, said: “I don’t think the track record of government in terms of that sort of technology implementation would give anybody a great deal of comfort.
“It’s very close to the deadline. I don’t think too many people in the world industry think that’s going to happen.”
A UK government spokesperson said that HMRC would publish its full plan for preparing Britain’s border for January this month.
“We are continuing our preparations for the end of the transition period and the introduction of new border controls, including by providing £84m to grow the customs intermediary sector to encompass EU trade after 2020,” they said.
“We are regularly engaging with industry as plans develop, in particular with regard to a new IT system that will facilitate movement at the border. A border operating model will be published in July 2020.”
Businesses don’t know how Britain’s Brexit borders will work
Naomi Smith, CEO of Best for Britain, which is campaigning for a comprehensive UK-EU trade deal, said: “This week we formally missed the opportunity to request an extension to the transition period.
“It is therefore jaw-dropping that in the very same week we find out the government cannot guarantee the IT systems needed to make our new borders operational will be ready in time.”
Concern that the GVMS might not be ready in time comes amid confusion over how it will work in practice and potential chaos for the 10,000 trucks which arrive at the port of Dover every day if there are shortcomings.