Thursday, October 11, 2018

Brexit Dominates Discussions as Warehousing and Logistics Bosses Face Government Advisors

UKWA House of Lords Reception Offers Opportunities for Comprehensive Update
Shipping News Feature

UK – As London basked in Autumn sunshine, the House of Lords was a fitting setting for a reception held by the United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA) on October 11, as it brought together some of the great and the good of the logistics industry, including many whose roles are inextricably linked with the current Brexit negotiations. The meeting demonstrated perfectly both the state of the talks, and the diverse opinions held even in this industry environment, with incoming President Baroness McIntosh admitting to have been on the opposite side to the incumbent Lord Brabazon (who actually stood down in July) in the matter of Britain's exit from the EU.

CEO Peter Ward then explained how the UKWA, in cooperation with other vested interests, were actively advising government on the industry’s requirements, before introducing Karen Wheeler CBE, Director General for Border Co-ordination at HMRC and Head of the Cross Government Border Delivery Group, a weighty title with good reason. Ms Wheeler represents over thirty government departments, all of whom have interest in the result of the negotiations, from Border Force to Trading Standards and she was emphatic that the often much vaunted ‘no deal’ scenario would present a challenge.

The focus of this organisation is to pull together all those departments plus the requirements of traders and logistics outfits and ensure that goods continue to flow across the borders after the UK leaves. Ms Wheeler thanked the UKWA for its help in suggesting practical, sensible, workable solutions to a variety of challenges. She said:

”Engaging with industry is important and we need to undertake individual dialogues with all stakeholders to facilitate the flow of goods and ensure we are not introducing processes which affect that flow of goods through our ports and airports.”

Next to speak was Lesley Bachelor OBE, Director General of the Institute of Export & International Trade who enthused about her recent visit to the WTO, and exhorted those present to visit. She said that the terms of Brexit were 90% complete but that the remaining 10% principally concerned the disagreement over the Irish border, continuing:

”We need a period of grace, many businesses are not ready and all need to familiarise themselves with trade deals. This is about services, procurement and trade. We need to know that UK will be a leader for fair and just trade. Multilateralism is under attack, we must defend rule based systems.”

At this point Peter Ward brought an end to the Brexit ruminations, turning to other matters of concern to the industry, not least the drastic shortage of skills and labour. He referred to the Chancellor’s budget statement and to the government study into the future of the freight industry thus introducing Fiona Jenkins, Senior Policy Advisor to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), the body charged with reviewing the options required to improve the existing infrastructure and recommend ways to use new technologies and processes to transform how freight moves by road and rail, in towns and cities, cross-country and into and out of ports and airports.

Ms Jenkins said that the Call for Evidence launched in January had resulted in an interim report, produced in conjunction with such as the UKWA, which will be released in November 2018. This will be followed in 2019 by the full report which aims to look at a forward planning horizon up to 2050. Whilst obviously unable to comment too much on the findings of the NIC report, Ms Jenkins said decision makers are not thinking holistically about supply chains.

The NIC is keen to maintain a dialogue with the industry seeing the greatest challenge is that, in the UK, we do not take an integrated systematic approach to freight, with a disparity of regulations, freight matters neglected in planning decisions, hampered by localised prerogatives, as opposed to a nationwide policy.

The final speaker was Debbie Shandley of The Real Apprenticeship Co. who said the government apprenticeship levy initiative had failed, and that the Trailblazer scheme of three years ago had set standards. What was needed was a clear pathway. Last week the Chancellor announced the first sign of flexibility in the levy and the need now is for devolved funding to local areas, with more people currently going into logistics than any other field.

Ms Shandley however couldn’t resist going full circle and referring back to Brexit. She said in light of the looming labour crisis, Britain’s exit offers a new opportunity to look at technology and decide what skills are needed for future. AI, robotics and smart systems, these will enhance higher value jobs as more mundane tasks are removed from the labour pool by technology.

Overall this latest UKWA event did exactly what it was designed for, it provided a conduit through which those responsible for actually ensuring the lights stay on and food fills the shelves, get up close and personal with some of the people, from HMRC staff to government advisors, and are able to put their cases face to face in the hope that some common sense decisions will result from the current negotiations.

One footnote for those who complain that the world of logistics is still dominated by middle aged to elderly men. Although this may still be predominately true in the wider context, it was notable that, at this event at least, all four guest speakers, and the UKWA President, were in fact of the opposite gender, a positive sign of progress if ever there was one.

Photo: Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, the new UKWA President, addresses the assembled guests.