The “impenetrability of the paperwork” following the end of the Brexit transition period is the biggest challenge faced by the food supply chain, MPs have been warned.
Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation, told MPs a well-known firm had reported a job that would usually take three hours to complete prior to 1 January had taken five days due to complex paperwork.
Speaking during a committee meeting on the progress of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, he said: “One of our biggest companies – a very well prepared, international global company – was trying to do a consignment of products out of the UK to the EU at the start of this week. The nature of the paperwork is that it's very varied and there are many elements to the consignment.
“A job which normally took them three hours before the deal was done has taken them five days so far, such is the nature of the impenetrability of the paperwork. That's our biggest problem.”
Wright also warned that enforcers of the agreement “are as clueless about the provisions of some of the deal as those who are operating under it”.
“Our biggest single problem is the fact that nobody absolutely has had the chance to work with this deal and rehearse how to do checks,” he said.
“The consequences that members and all of the players in the food supply chain, whether they be exporting or importing between the United Kingdom and the EU or between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (NI), have had very little time to get to grips with the provisions of the agreement, and are still exploring them,” he said.
Andrew Opie, director of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), told the committee product shortages seen in NI were an “inevitable consequence” of supermarkets and suppliers being cautious over the border as the Brexit transition period ended, but those shortages had mainly “been overcome”.
However Opie stressed the need for a “long-term sustainable solution” to move product from Great Britain into NI from 1 April, when the second phase of border controls are in place.
“If we do not find a solution and a workable solution for retailers, in the next couple of months, we do face significant disruption in Northern Ireland.”
Opie’s comments came as chief executives from six of the UK’s largest supermarkets – including Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Iceland, Co-Op and Marks & Spencers – called for an "urgent intervention" from the UK government to prevent further disruption to NI food supplies.
In a joint letter, coordinated by the BRC to Cabinet Officer minister Michael Gove, the retailers said new certification requirements that are due to be introduced in April would make the system “unworkable”.
Meanwhile, Asos said it faces costs of up to £15m in 2021 in Brexit tariff costs due to “country of origin rules” in the deal between the UK and EU.
The retailer shared its estimates in an investor call, which revealed its sales had jumped by 23% in the four months leading up to 31 December 2020.
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