A cabinet office minister, has prompted a furious backlash among business associations, after accusing them of, “having their heads in the sand,” in preparing for the transition that will happen when the UK leaves the single market and customs union on 31st December.
Theodore Agnew, the cabinet minister working on preparations for Brexit within the Treasury and Cabinet office, believes that firms have been too slow in preparing due to the impact of the coronavirus and the recession that has accompanied it. He has urged bosses to become, more “energetic,” in their approach of getting ready for the final stage of Brexit.
Lord Agnew’s Comments
In an address to the Treasury Committee, Lord Agnew said, “There has been a head in the sand approach by traders which has been compounded by what I would call the quadruple whammy of two false alarms, so two extensions at the very last minute, then followed by Covid, and now followed by the recession. The traders are not as ready as they should be.
“And if there’s one headline I hope that comes out of this appearance today it’s to send another shot over traders’ bows to warn them that it’s their businesses that are at stake from January 1 and they really must engage in a more energetic way…… Ultimately the government can only do so much. If businesses haven’t engaged in the process and understood the processes from 1st January that has to be their responsibility.”
The minister’s stark warning has drawn a disgruntled response from businesses that have repeatedly called for clarity and urgency from the government on what the new border processes and IT systems will look like, many of which are still not in place. Among those to speak out over the minister’s comments were Tim Rycroft, Chief Operating Officer of the Food and Drink Federation. “A ‘head in the sand approach by traders’? That’ll go down well!” This was also backed by Stewart Wood, a Labour representative of the Lords EU committee who described Lord Agnew’s comments as a, “spectacularly unfair characterisation.”
As well as the comments that he has made on business readiness for the Brexit transition, Lord Agnew also came under fire from the Road Haulage Association (RHA) by announcing that he was more interested in talking to groups that were more, “integrally involved” in cross-border trading rather than the haulage group, who have been key in highlighting the government’s shortcomings in preparing for the transition.
Richard Burnett, RHA’s chief executive, responded, “It’s clear that Lord Agnew doesn’t understand how the logistics industry works and that hauliers will have to provide the full service of customs declarations as well due to the shortage of agents. Of course he can leave us out and ignore us, but at his peril.”
Logistic UK’s Response
The response of Elizabeth de Jong, policy director for Logistics UK, made little comment to Lord Agnew’s direct comments and instead took this as an opportunity to detail Logistic UK’s approach to the transition.
“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 January 1st.”
“Instead of spending the ne 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 agreement 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.”
HMRC has predicted that 260 million new customs declarations will be completed per year which would require an extra 50,000 new customs agents.