Claims of 68% slump
Gove’s office insists EU freight ‘near normal’
The RHA says port traffic has slumped
The UK government said it did not recognise figures claiming exports to the EU through British ports had fallen by more than two-thirds.
Data provided by the Road Haulage Association showed trade was down by 68% last month compared with January last year as Brexit came into effect.
The RHA’s chief executive, Richard Burnett, said he had repeatedly warned Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove over several months of mounting problems but had been largely ignored.
In particular he had made clear throughout last year there was an urgent need to increase the number of customs agents to help firms with mountains of extra paperwork. The number now, around 10,000, is still about a fifth of what the RHA says is required to handle the massive increase in paperwork facing exporters.
Mr Burnett told the Observer that about 65%-75% of vehicles that had come over from the EU were going back empty because there were no goods for them to return with, due to hold-ups on the UK side.
It was also because some UK companies had either temporarily or permanently halted exports to the EU. “I find it deeply frustrating and annoying that ministers have chosen not to listen to the industry and experts,” he said.
But some trade experts say the fall is also because of the lockdowns and a UK government spokesperson refused to acknowledge the figures.
“We have had intensive engagement with the road haulage industry for many months and are still facilitating a daily call with representative groups,” he said.
“We do not recognise the figure provided on exports. Thanks to the hard work of hauliers and traders to prepare for change, disruption at the border has so far been minimal and freight movements are now close to normal levels, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We will continue to work constructively with the RHA as we adjust to our new relationship with the EU and seize the opportunities of Brexit.”
The RHA says its figures are from the House of Commons library, showing UK exports to the EU were £294bn in 2019 (43% of all UK exports) while UK imports from the EU were £374bn (52% of the total). The overwhelming majority of exports to the EU from the UK go through ports rather than by air.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, told the Observer the 68% figure sounded “broadly in line” with his impressions of the drop-off in traffic.
He said some but not all of the problems with extra paperwork that caused delays could be overcome in time, although he warned some businesses on both sides would look for new markets rather than try to deal with the added friction.
Mr Ballantyne also predicted a new set of difficulties in months to come as the infrastructure needed at the point when the UK introduces full import checks on goods from the EU on 1 July would not, in his view, be ready in time. This raised the prospect of a whole new set of issues affecting imports.
In recent weeks hundreds of UK companies have decided either to halt exports to the EU or to set up warehouses or subsidiaries within the EU so they can distribute goods more easily.
Ministers say most of the Brexit-relating issues facing businesses are “teething problems”, although Mr Gove has accepted that those affecting Northern Ireland are more serious.