Business leaders in Northern Ireland have voiced concerns about post-Brexit trade following a warning from HM Revenue and Customs officials that they expect there to be only “broadly functioning” border systems in place for the end of the transition period on 1 January.
Several businesses groups have said they are concerned about the impact customs delays could have on trade, as many of HMRC's key customs systems are still undergoing testing. They have repeated calls for a grace period to allow traders to adjust to new arrangements.
The UK is set to leave the EU single market once the transition period ends, but Northern Ireland will still follow some EU rules to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Under the Northern Ireland protocol, border checks will instead be required for goods crossing the Irish Sea to the British mainland, but traders still lack basic details about how the new IT systems needed to move goods across this border will operate.
Two key systems – the expanded Customs Declaration System and the new Goods Vehicle Movement Service – are still undergoing limited testing and will not be open for registration until later this month.
Speaking to MPs on Wednesday, Mark Denney, director of IT at HMRC, admitted there was still “work to do during the month of December” on the CDS, which is currently undergoing limited testing.
He added that there is “high confidence” that the GVMS – which will begin end-to-end testing with selected traders on 14 December – will be ready in time, but warned that there is still “a fair degree of risk”.
He told the Northern Ireland Affairs committee: “Our delivery track at the moment is to have all of those core delivery components delivered for 1 January.
“We've got a very busy December coming where we've got a lot of testing to finish off. We're getting ready for deployment and implementation. But we fully expect to have a broadly functioning model available 1 January.”
But the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has argued that the department has left too little time to roll out the new systems effectively.
“If a retailer were rolling out that sort of change, then they'd be rolling that out over a year or 18 months. They wouldn't be rolling it out in five working days,” Aodhán Connolly, the consortium's director, said.
And industry leaders have expressed anger that delays to the IT systems mean traders cannot properly prepare and train their staff.
“The rules around them and the decisions around them needed to be in place months ago. We're in a situation where there are many, many unanswered questions and things that are not just done,” said Duncan Buchanan, director of the Road Haulage Association.
“And this is all stuff that matters whether we have a deal or no deal. It's irrelevant to that. This is the stuff that has to happen on 1 January regardless. The frustration is around people that are having to use systems not having access to them.”
Connolly also expressed concern that businesses did not have details of what contingency plans were in place should issues arise with the new systems in the early part of next year.
“There is a concern that they could fail and obviously that would be that would be really negative for Northern Ireland business, but secondly, and we haven't seen what those contingency plans are. We don't know what they are,” he told CSW's sister title PoliticsHome.
He continued: “There is no good customs fairy coming in the first week of January if the systems aren't working to wave their magic wand so we can all go about our businesses. There is no way that business is going to be ready.
“There are grave concerns whether the IT projects are going to be ready. So we are going to need a grace period, or an adjustment period, or an implementation period. We do not care what they call it, but we need that flexibility from both the UK and the EU”
Roger Pollen, head of external affairs at the Northern Irish Federation of Small Business, agreed the grace period would be “hugely beneficial” for businesses and for the government to get “to grips with the new arrangements”.
He said: “With details still being deliberated at the Joint Committee, and with the wider UK-EU discussions having implications for Northern Ireland, businesses still don’t know precisely how trade will operate.
“Given that the GB-EU border will be gradually phased in, a similar mechanism for goods movements between GB and NI would be consistent and appropriate.”
Eleanor Langford is a reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this article first appeared.