Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Row Breaks Out Over UK Minister's Critical Comments of Trader Readiness for Brexit

Businesses Accused of 'Heads in the Sand' Sparking Counter Accusations
Shipping News Feature

UK – EUROPE – With the British Prime Minister saying that a Brexit deal must be done by tomorrow (October 15) or he is ready to walk away, the latest comments from Treasury and Cabinet Office Minister Lord Agnew saw him take a storm of criticism from industry and logistics groups after he accused the country's businesses of having a 'head in the sand' approach to the split from Europe.

Whilst addressing the Treasury Committee the minister, Sir Theodore Thomas More Agnew, Baron Agnew of Oulton to give him his full title, and a man who appears to have zero experience in the world of logistics, went on to say the country was ‘in reasonably good shape’ as concerns future Customs issues but that trader readiness worried him, continuing:

”The traders are not as ready as they should be. And if there is one headline that I hope comes out of this appearance today, I hope it is to send another shot over traders’ bows to warn them that it is their businesses that are at stake from the first of January and they really must engage in a more energetic way."

Even Committee members railed at this attitude with Labour MP Rushanara Ali accusing the minister of setting up businesses in a blame game if and when things went awry in January. He commented traders more likely to find an answer buried in the sand than in the government’s response. The view of two major logistics associations were unequivocal with Road Haulage Association (RHA) chief executive Richard Burnett responding:

“With 11 weeks to go until the transition period ends, Government are still saying ‘let’s wait and see what deal we get.’ This is creating even more confusion. Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps himself has said ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best.’ What sort of message is that sending out?

“Regardless of the final result, the paperwork will still need to be completed. One of our major concerns is that despite hauliers having to provide the full service of customs declarations, based on current figures, there will be a significant shortfall of customs agents.”

“It’s interesting that another of Lord Agnew’s concerns, that traders are not as ready as they should be, is a sentiment that we share, but for different reasons. Since the original vote to leave the EU was taken four years ago the RHA has been working tirelessly to establish how future processes and systems will work. But we are still in the dark and very little useful information has been forthcoming.

“It’s clear that Lord Agnew doesn’t understand how the logistics industry works, who the experts are, or the market itself. He says that his department is simply asking businesses who trade with the EU to get ready. We, in turn, are simply asking Lord Agnew’s department to give businesses the clarity that they need to make that happen.”

For its part Logistics UK took it a little easier on the minister, concentrating more on what it had been telling its members to do in the run up to the end of the transition period, with Policy Director Elizabeth de Jong saying:

“Rather than ignoring the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU, Logistics UK has been proactively urging its members to make sure that they and their customers prepare as much as possible for the new trading conditions we will face. Like the government we are also calling on the wider business community, the importers and exporters across the UK, to engage with the detail and get ready for 1 January.

“Instead of spending the next 11 weeks before the end of the transition period debating who and what is or isn’t ready, Logistics UK is proactively working with government on a series of metrics to assess readiness, so that government and industry can be as confident as possible that all is on track for a smooth transition to a new trading arrangement with the EU. Despite the challenges our members are facing to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic and the festive season, traditionally our busiest time of year, we stand ready to help keep Britain trading as we always do.”

Other industry figures were not so placid. Chief operating officer Tim Rycroft of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), probably the industry putting the country most at risk if Customs clearance problems proliferate post Brexit, said it was neither accurate or helpful for ministers to assert that traders have not engaged in Brexit planning and that traders had waited ‘ many frustrating months’ for critical answers to their questions.

This view was echoed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) with deputy director general Josh Hardie saying the best way out of the situation was for politicians in both camps to agree a deal in the coming weeks using common sense and compromise – something few involved in the negotiations so far can be accused of.

Photo: Lord Agnew and his view of British businesses.