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Wales: Customs Sites

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in (1) finding potential, and (2) establishing new, lorry customs sites that are close to ports, in particular Holyhead, and near strategic road networks in Wales, before 31 December.

My Lords, for January 2021, HMRC decided that Warrington and Birmingham inland border facilities will provide interim transit facilities for goods requiring inspection through Holyhead. Holyhead will also have a limited facility for ATA Carnets. Neither Birmingham nor Warrington is near capacity; they are on the strategic road network for traffic using the mainland as a land bridge. For July 2021, an enduring site has been identified, and we are moving towards completion as quickly as possible.

Given that we now know that the border in the Irish Sea will be moved temporarily from Holyhead to Warrington and Birmingham, in a move described by an industry expert as a recipe for smuggling, and, given that Holyhead has been described as a “soft spot” for people trafficking, how will the movement of goods and people be monitored on the 100-mile journey to Warrington, or on the 175-mile journey to Birmingham, for their customs checks?

My Lords, we absolutely accept that Warrington and Birmingham will be interim solutions to the challenge of having these facilities much nearer to Holyhead, and we are working at pace to deliver that.

My Lords, does my noble friend share my disappointment that it has not been possible to find a site local to Holyhead for customs checks, which clearly will be needed when shipments come in from the Republic of Ireland and could create jobs and boost the economy on Anglesey and the surrounding areas?

I am pleased to tell my noble friend that yesterday we agreed verbal heads of terms for a site on the island of Anglesey. It is not a done deal by any means, but I am confident that we will do that deal, and that it will give the answers that my noble friend is asking for.

My Lords, uncertainty about how Holyhead as a major gateway out of the European Union will operate raises concerns about jobs and livelihoods for local people. Can the Minister say if the levelling-up agenda applies to Wales, too, or is it just for Northern Ireland? Does he agree that this is an opportunity to help the local economy and Wales as a whole by ensuring that customs checks are carried out on the island, as well as alleviating security concerns inherent in checks done as far away as Warrington and Birmingham?

I agree with the noble Lord, which is why we have made the decision to move at pace to acquire the site on the island of Anglesey. That will bring jobs to the island and will ensure that security checks are as close to the port as possible.

My Lords, at all stages of the Brexit process we have urged the Government to formalise their engagement with the devolved Administrations, for example by putting the Joint Ministerial Committee on a statutory footing. Ministers said that this was unnecessary, yet the Welsh Government say that Whitehall made a formal approach regarding an inland site to serve Holyhead only in August. Why do the Government find it so hard to work constructively and proactively with others? Does it stem from the Prime Minister’s recent and very damaging comments on devolution?

My Lords, I want to reassure the noble Lord that we have had extremely collaborative and constructive discussions with the Welsh Administration; indeed, it was only yesterday that I agreed with the Welsh Minister to go for the site for which we agreed the verbal heads of terms yesterday. I gave that choice to the Welsh Minister and I was delighted when he agreed with the proposal that we put forward to him. So we are working very closely with the devolved authorities, and, as I say, with Wales in particular I have had a very constructive relationship.

Yesterday the French border control started trialling new controls, and immediately a five-mile lorry queue built up on the M20. If lorries to Holyhead have to travel via Warrington or Birmingham, how much longer do the Government believe the additional journey is likely to take, and what estimate have they made of the percentage increase in food costs as a result?

My Lords, if 100% of the Holyhead traffic had to go to Birmingham, it would take up 40% of Birmingham’s capacity. If it had to go 100% to Warrington, it would take up 20% of its capacity. So we are very unlikely to see any congestion at those two interim inland ports. In terms of distance delay, the Warrington site is located for those trucks going to the eastern ports and the Birmingham site is located for those going to the short-straits ports, so we do not anticipate delay or cost in relation to that.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister accepts that Warrington is totally inappropriate, and I am glad that a location has been found on Anglesey and hope that it moves forward very quickly. But perhaps I may press the Minister on another question. As I understand it, the digital infrastructure for border checks at Holyhead from 1 January still has not been fully tested, and, if things go wrong, it will have massive implications for the flow of trade and for local congestion. What urgent measures are being taken to deal with that scenario?

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Lord that we are on track to have the digital infrastructure up and running by 1 January. I completely accept that we are running on a very tight timetable, but if we take, for example, the GVMS system—which I think is the one that he is referring to—that has been available for testing by hauliers and carriers since September and will be released to all hauliers on 8 December.

Putting aside the issue of having to drive 100 miles or 175 miles in order to have your load checked, meaning that you have to go to one of two places, I am interested to know the Minister’s answer to the question that was put to him earlier about working at pace. Am I right to understand that the first communication on the siting of a potential site on the Isle of Anglesey was yesterday; and, if so, is that what the Government call working at pace?

I can reassure the noble Lord that we have been working on this solution for some time. There was an alternative proposal several months ago that most people were in favour of, which was RAF Mona, but unfortunately that was not acceptable to the local community. But, no, we have not just started work on this this week. In terms of the inland sites, to reassure the noble Lord, not every lorry has to go to them. About 2% of loads will be diverted for formal checks. So, although I accept that in the interim, before the enduring site is created on the island, there will be some inconvenience, it will be only for a very small number of loads.

My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, concerns were raised this month about the readiness of IT systems, including the Customs Declaration Service, in oral evidence to the EU Select Committee’s EU Goods Sub-Committee. Is it the case that key personnel for developing the CDS are still being recruited? Does the Minister agree that, the rest of the UK aside, the particular problems facing Wales will be compounded if IT systems are not ready on time?

My Lords, the CDS is the system that is being rolled out specifically for Northern Ireland from 1 January, because that is the one that enables a dual-tariff mechanism. The development is well under way. We have one or two more upgrades to make to it, with the last one on 21 December. I am not going to pretend that that is not tight, but the development is moving at pace, and the most recent upgrade enabled the dual-tariff operating model to work. The CSPs—the community service providers that provide the link into the CDS for traders and hauliers—are working at pace. The main one, the Trader Support Service, is working at particular pace, and I am confident that the system will be connected by the due date.

My Lords, further to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, the head of Stena Line’s head of UK Port Authorities told the BBC yesterday that it was preparing for no deal and was confident that it was in the right place for that. As far as I am aware, the Government are still looking for a deal. That means that big companies such as Stena, and also small companies, will have to deal with the uncertainty, with 36 days to go. What help is being provided to enable small independent businesses, in particular, to interact with that extremely late-arriving IT system?

My Lords, the difference for the vast majority of traders between a deal and no deal is simply the level of tariffs that will have to be put into the HMRC and DIT systems. So their readiness needs to be at the same level, whether it is a deal or no deal.