Labour slams Tories over “smuggler’s charter” to avoid Brexit ports gridlock

Elliot Chappell
© Ron Porter

Anneliese Dodds has described last-minute changes made by the Tories to customs rules, which the government itself has admitted will put the security of the UK border at risk, as “tantamount to a smuggler’s charter”.

Responding to new arrangements pushed through amid uncertainty on customs and trading after Brexit this afternoon, the Shadow Chancellor slammed the government for not having taken action earlier to avoid disruption at UK ports.

The government has admitted that the rules, which give HMRC the power to waive pre-departure checks for exports, could compromise security. Labour said they would allow smugglers to use ports to carry out illegal activity.

Commenting on the arrangements today, Dodds said: “Today the government traded away the security and safety of UK trade by pushing through new customs rules that are tantamount to a smuggler’s charter.

“This comes on top of failures to deal with a range of business-critical issues that have repeatedly been raised with government, from rules of origin to systems still not being ready with just days to go till we leave the transition period.

“The government’s desperate, last-ditch attempt to avoid gridlock at our ports could have been avoided if it had acted responsibly and taken action earlier.”

The draft customs safety and security procedures were considered by committee today. The explanatory note states: “There may be risks associated with using these powers to implement any temporary waivers; for example, to border security.”

Labour urged ministers on Wednesday to “get a grip on the situation” at ports as the pandemic, combined with uncertainty around the end of the Brexit transition period, has led to stockpiling and disruption at Britain’s borders.

The comments from Dodds today follow confusion at the largest UK ports, with Felixstowe, Southampton and the London Gateway – responsible between them for 70% of container freight into the country – reporting significant congestion.

Businesses have been “sounding the alarm for weeks”, Labour says, and the disruption means deliveries and food supplies risk failing to make it to shops, causing stock shortages during the Christmas trading period.

Labour’s Lucy Powell warned this week: “This disruption couldn’t come at a worse time of year, with businesses reliant on keeping their shelves stocked to cash in on crucial Christmas trade after months of really difficult conditions.

“Michael Gove must listen to industry and take urgent action to do what he can to ease the bottlenecks at British ports, or Gove will be the Grinch who stole Christmas. And without a proper plan in place to reduce congestion, I worry this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Honda shut down production on Wednesday at its biggest plant in Europe, in Swindon, due to UK port delays. The 370-acre factory operated by 3,000 employees ceased operating due to delays in receiving spare parts from east Asia.

Automative manufacturers such as Honda are particularly vulnerable to the disruption at the border because of their ‘just-in-time’ supply chains, which minimise costs by bringing parts to factories only when required.

Shipping prices have risen significantly in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic, with British consumers facing a pre-Christmas surge in prices and companies bracing for further disruption at the end of the transition period.

The UK has left the EU and the transition period is due to end on January 1st, after which point all goods entering and leaving the country to and from the EU will be subject to new rules and processes not yet agreed.

Post-Brexit trade talks between the UK government and the EU are ongoing, with differences remaining over fishing, governance and the ‘level playing field’. If a deal is not secured before the end of the year, the UK will leave with no deal.

Boris Johnson promised at the last general election to deliver an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal, but no agreement has been reached. The Prime Minister and the EU Commission President have now agreed Sunday as a new deadline.

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