Thursday, October 12, 2017

UK Warehouse Keepers Face up to the Challenges of Brexit and Free Trade

Round Table Discussions Precede Explanations Over Lunch
Shipping News Feature
UK – The traditional United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA) annual lunch yesterday, held at the House of Lords under the stewardship of the President Lord Brabazon, saw numerous members gather to hear a follow up to the intense round table discussion earlier in the day at which the Brexit debate was a major talking point. The Association has recently evolved to include membership from the wider world of commerce, particularly the retail sector, with names such as Homebase and John Lewis signed up, and there was a groundswell of opinion amongst those gathered to ensure that trade, and the way export and import commodities are treated with a special interest in the Customs status of freight entering storage facilities, is a priority.

To this end the timing of the day’s events was more than fortuitous, just two days previously the Prime Minister announced the publication of two White Papers, one from the Department for Internatonal Trade which emphasises what it sees as the UK’s strengthened position in the World Trade Organisation and outlining the planned strategy the UK hopes to adopt as negotiations on trade progress.

The second document is the HMRC’s vision of Customs arrangements in any future partnership and, in a very succinct address to the assembled company, Ben Fowler from HMRC discussed the three keys points proposed, namely the overall position of the UK in world trade, the complexities of the Irish border and the UK’s own policy intentions in its dealings with assorted world partners. He explained the White Paper is a precursor to a Bill, to be published by the end of the year which will formally present Britain’s intentions with regard to these.

To place the UK in the best position possible it will aim to introduce streamlined customs procedures in a model capable of adapting quickly to changes which may occur as technology develops. Anyone with a history in the freight industry will look back at the bad old days of ATA Carnets and similar lengthy documents, mandatory before Britain signed up to the EEC, and trust that the lessons of free trade have been learned by all parties.

The White Paper contains details of the Customs Declaration Service (CDS) scheduled to replace the incumbent CHIEF system by January 2019 and tailored to comply with the existing EU Customs Code, but Mr Fowler was realistic enough to consider what will happen if the UK proposals are rejected by the EU and went on to mention the extension of inland clearance facilities, a point of special note to the audience with an emphasis that the government arms must work in partnership with those at the sharp end to ensure both compliance and functionality.

The HMRC representative was preceded by a talk from Beth Thomas, author of ‘Powered by Happy’, formerly of Sequent Consulting and now CEO at Change 4 Growth which she launched last month and who gave an American perspective to the discussion in which one stand out fact visibly shocked her audience. According to Ms Thomas the US retail market is split 90/10 in favour of ‘bricks and mortar’ purchases i.e. people buying goods in a store as opposed to online. The huge growth of ecommerce in the UK means that conservative estimates state around 17% of all British retail sales are now online with over 95% of the country’s citizens using the system, and commodities such as clothing are generally seen as exceeding this take up.

The luncheon was overseen by UKWA CEO Peter Ward who emphasised the importance of this ‘Amazon Factor’ to the members present and spoke further of troubled times, touching on such subjects as the abandonment of the Trans Pacific Free Trade Agreement and the complexities of Brexit, but reminding listeners that the UKWA was forged in hotter fires, launched as it was as the National Association of Inland Warehouse Keepers as war raged across Europe in 1944, when its purpose was to protect the integrity of a fragile, but essential, food chain.

Also high on the agenda was the shortage of staff in the logistics sector as an ageing workforce retires, whilst the weakened pound and uncertainty over EU citizenship conspire to reduce the availability of European labour. However, compared to the challenges faced by their predecessors, the executives of the UKWA obviously realise that, whatever Brexit negotiations may bring, things could be, and have been, a lot worse.

Photo: The House of Lords provided an impressive setting for the discussions.