Boris Johnson’s government has scrapped the introduction of planned post-Brexit inspections on food coming into the UK from the EU, cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has announced.
In a written statement to the Commons, the Brexit opportunities minister said the controls set to come into force on 1 July would not be enforced during 2022.
“No further import controls on EU goods will be introduced this year – businesses can stop their preparations for July now,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.
Mr Rees-Mogg suggested the government planned a complete overhaul of its border check plans, revealing that the end of 2023 was the target for a brand new “controls regime”.
The Independent revealed last month that the government was set to push back the import controls because of growing fears they will exacerbate the cost of living crisis.
Mr Rees-Mogg pointed to living cost pressures as a major reason for the move, but blamed rising costs on “Russia’s war in Ukraine and in energy prices”.
However, he later told ITV that the controls on EU imports “would have been an act of self-harm” – admitting that post-Brexit checks would have seen prices rise at the supermarket.
“[With] some costs it would be quite significant – if you look at small deliveries on things like cheese, you were talking about 71 per cent increase, maximum level, on the retail price,” he said. “Free trade is hugely advantageous to consumers.”
The Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks planned for on 1 July would have seen checks on imported agri-food and plant imports. The government estimates that there would have been a £1bn annual hit to trade.
There were also concerns that British ports do not have the necessary infrastructure – or veterinary experts – needed for the planned checks, which involve random physical inspections.
The Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the government’s decision on Thursday. “This move will give them more time to prepare for future changes and reassess supply chains,” said chair Martin McTague.
Cold Chain Federation chief Shane Brennan also backed the U-turn, saying the checks “would have made a bad situation much worse”. He welcomed Mr Rees-Mogg’s commitment to “rethink the way these controls work”.
Despite spending millions on border control posts, Mr Rees-Mogg said the government would “accelerate” plans to “digitise Britain’s borders” in an attempt to reduce ongoing trade fiction.
The senior Tory claimed the latest move could save British businesses “up to £1bn” a year, but the British Ports Association (BPA) lashed out at the “wasted” millions spent on building border control posts that port chiefs fear will remain unused.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the BPA, described Thursday’s decision as “quite an amazing development”, saying the body will be asking the government for finanical compensation “immediately”.
He said: “This announcement is a major policy change, meaning the facilities will effectively become white elephants, wasting millions of pounds of public and private funding, not to mention the huge effort there has been to get things ready in time.”
Port companies are reportedly ready to take legal action against the government to recover the costs of building the border facilities, and the recruitment of extra staff.
Meanwhile, Europe minister James Cleverly told a parliamentary committee on Thursday that the UK and EU are at an impasse over changes to the Northern Ireland protocol.
“The truth is that we have come to something of an impasse, and I don’t think that’s through a lack of goodwill, and I think it’s more through what we regard in the UK as an overly limited [EU] negotiating mandate,” he said.
Of the protocol, Mr Cleverly said: “It is not working. It is not doing what it was meant to do … and that by extension is causing community tensions in NI, which we feel need to be addressed.”
Warning of potential violence ahead, Mr Cleverly said: “Many of us lived through the Troubles. We are absolutely determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement and not go back to that point in time.”
But the minister would not give away any details of the draft bill reportedly being drawn up to unilaterally “tear up” parts of the protocol that Mr Johnson’s government doesn’t like.
“We’re looking at a range of options about what we can do to ease these tensions – I don’t want to go further than that,” he said.