UK should fix Brexit red tape, says trade group

The British government should fix post-Brexit red tape over customs and trade processes and issue more visas to address labour shortages, according to the British Chambers of Commerce.

In a wide-ranging report ahead of the “Brexit day” anniversary on January 31, the trade group, which represents tens of thousands of businesses across the UK, raised concerns about the disruption caused by the departure from the EU’s single market. It called for Britain and the bloc to further streamline new customs and trade processes to reduce the burden of paperwork and prevent delays.

The report pointed to the need for agreement on safety markings for industrial goods — where differences will exist with the EU — and a veterinary deal to ease restrictions on the trade of plant and animal products.

The group also wants simplified, business-friendly rules on cross-border VAT to help UK companies trade with all countries in the EU.

Shevaun Haviland, the BCC director-general who joined from the Cabinet Office last year, expressed concerns over how long the government was taking to fix the problems that Brexit had caused for companies.

“At the time of the deal, it was like, ‘We’ve got some things to fix underneath it but we’ll get to that quite quickly afterwards.’ But we haven’t really been quick enough,” she said.

Businesses were “getting used to” the new border rules, she added, but these were holding companies back because they were “costly and time-consuming . . . it’s just adding a lot of noise into the system. It hasn’t gone away.”

Shevaun Haviland, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce
Shevaun Haviland, director-general of the BCC, said businesses were ‘getting used to’ the new border rules but added that they were hindering companies because they were ‘costly and time-consuming’ © Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

The BCC said that new border controls on imports from the EU that will come into force this year risk compounding supply chain problems and urged the government to prioritise the flow of goods.

The new rules introduced from January 1 had initially caused extra turmoil, with industry sources telling the BCC that about 30 per cent of trucks were being turned back at Calais in the first week of this year, but Haviland said this had stabilised at about 10 per cent.

The BCC called on the government to provide further financial help for companies needing to adapt to the rules by bringing back the SME Brexit Support Fund, which was set up to help small businesses handle the confusion and paperwork associated with leaving the EU, and increasing its maximum payments to more than £2,000.

Haviland urged the EU and UK to reach an agreement on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. “Negotiations need to be finished as soon as possible . . . businesses just need to know, one way or the other, what is the outcome?” 

She also pointed to the need to reassess curbs on business travel and UK professional qualifications in the EU.

Haviland added that BCC members were concerned about access to skilled workers, with labour shortages proving a “drag on economic growth” in the UK. The group called for extra visas “to try and relieve some of the tension in the system”.

“It’s absolutely not asking for uncontrolled immigration,” she said. “We are just saying that in areas like hospitality, construction and manufacturing where there are pinch points, can we just sort out short-term visas, while people get skilled up to take those roles?”

She said that companies were also worried about the rising cost of doing business in the UK, given soaring bills for energy, wages, materials and supplies. Businesses would need to increase prices as a result, she added.

“The number one concern for businesses is inflation, even above labour shortages.”

The BCC wants the government to delay the national insurance increase due to come into effect in April and provide additional help for small businesses to cope with climbing energy costs.

“Let’s not lose it now, let’s not kill it. The green shoots are there, let’s see them flower rather than killing them.”

The British government said that the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement allows British businesses to “trade freely with Europe”, but they must adapt to new processes, for which they have been offered one-to-one advice through a free-to-use export support service.

“Indications since January 1 are that traders and hauliers are adapting very well to the introduction of full customs controls,” a spokesperson said.

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