- By Faisal Islam
- Economics editor
Yet again it seems that now is not the time to add to the burden of food importers, with more post-Brexit red tape and charges.
Ministers this week further delayed the imposition of post-Brexit checks and charges on food imported from the European Union.
It was the fifth delay to planned changes to the import arrangements for farm and food imports, and comes amid concern about food price inflation.
The government acknowledged for the first time that, when implemented, the extra red tape and charges would add to overall inflation, albeit by a modest 0.2%.
The checks are now set to be introduced at the end of April 2024.
So while the delay followed Treasury concerns about the effect on food prices – the impact will still be felt when the changes are introduced next year.
One contributor to this extra food import inflation comes from a “common user charge” on “each consignment” which enters through Dover or the Eurotunnel as it is checked in at the giant new facility in Sevington, Kent.
The charge could be as high as £43 – a manageable problem for bigger importers but prohibitive for some smaller importers of European food.
On top of this, consignments will need to be expensively signed off by accredited vets.
Such extra checks and charges – a move away from years of frictionless free flowing trade – became inevitable because of the shape of the Brexit deal agreed with the EU in 2020.
Farming groups are concerned that while British exports face the full range of EU controls, EU exports into the UK continue to be waved through. There is not a level playing field.
There are also concerns about biosecurity because of the lack of checks.
Food industry voices more broadly welcomed the move, which shifts the main change to the spring, when the UK is less reliant on EU food imports. But they have already termed the extra charges and red tape the “food import tax”.
Some expressed scepticism that the changes would happen at all, given the proximity to a likely general election next year.
Ministers are adamant that the moves will go ahead and say they have worked to minimise the extra red tape.
The latest model for the operation of the UK trade border justifies the changes, saying that the “consequences of a major outbreak of plant or animal disease on economy could be far more severe” than the 0.2% increase in inflation.
But the Labour Party says it will try to negotiate a veterinary deal with the EU, if it wins the next election.
On Newsnight this week, the party’s trade spokesman Nick Thomas-Symonds told me: “The central purpose of a negotiation is to get food on to people’s table as soon as possible, all of which will end up being more expensive as a consequence of these checks. We will minimise those checks”.
The Labour frontbencher made the opposition’s most detailed comments about its strategy should it win an election.
He mentioned a bespoke British negotiation building on precedents in EU deals with Switzerland and New Zealand, which have minimised the need for new red tape and charges on food trade to and from Europe.
The trade-off here though is that minimising these checks would probably also limit Britain’s scope to diverge from EU rules on, for example, gene-editing and use of certain fertilisers.
Mr Thomas-Symonds said his party was not interested in what he called a “race to the bottom” on standards. The government does not seem to have prioritised divergence from the EU in this area, as it has in say, financial services.
The end result is that the food industry has one eye on the political polls, and the possibility that if these checks are introduced in April, they might be reversed in short order.
Or that they might not happen to begin with. A sixth delay is far from out of the question.
Read More: Will post-Brexit food checks ever happen?