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Freight Industry: Delays

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with organisations representing the freight industry about arrangements to ensure that delays at (1) ports, and (2) airports, are avoided.

My Lords, the Department for Transport regularly engages with stakeholders within the freight industry. The Cabinet Office’s border and protocol delivery group has been working closely with the sector on delivering the required preparations for the end of the transition period, including new customs procedures for freight.

The Sevington lorry park, designed to relieve queues of around 7,000 lorries on Kent motorways, will not be ready until the end of February. Meanwhile, the Government have rejected a funding bid from Dover port for more passport checkpoints to reduce queues. The Government have had three years to prepare for Brexit. Can the Minister explain how they have got themselves into such a chaotic mess? Why have they refused Dover funding for essential infrastructure, and what will be the impact of these two government mistakes on food supplies?

Very briefly on the port infrastructure fund, 41 ports will be getting support. There were bids totalling £450 million and the pot was only £200 million, so some places were disappointed, but Ministers and officials stand by to address concerns.

The Sevington site will open as planned on 1 January to manage traffic, should there be disruption. As always, you would expect the Government to have a plan B, and that is why customs checks will take place at Ashford Waterbrook and transfer to Sevington in due course.

Will my noble friend tell the House what arrangements have been made in ports on the west coast of Scotland and England for the examination of some goods travelling to Northern Ireland? Secondly, given that the infrastructure in Northern Ireland ports for these inspections is not yet complete, what interim arrangements have been made to avoid long delays?

My Lords, as I said, the port infrastructure fund provided funding to 41 ports, and they will be able to put various things in place. Work is ongoing with the devolved Administrations for ports in Wales, and conversations are ongoing with the Northern Ireland Executive to make sure goods travelling across the Irish Sea can do so successfully.

On 1 January, the UK will have another frontier with the EU in the form of the sea border between Wales and the Republic of Ireland. The ports of Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock handle more than half a million lorries and trailers crossing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland each year, and Holyhead is the second largest roll-on, roll-off port in the UK after Dover. A report in the last few days from the Commons’ Welsh Affairs Committee warned that the necessary systems and infra- structure may not be ready in time for full implementation of the new border checks. Can the Minister give an update on the capability of the checking facilities and assure those who operate in and out of these Welsh ports that the facilities are now oven-ready for 1 January and able to cope?

I reassure my noble friend that we are working closely with the Welsh Government on a cross-government basis to make sure all ports are as ready as they can be. I can also reassure him that from 1 January 2021, the UK will have autonomy to introduce its own approach to goods imported to GB from the EU. But, recognising the impact of coronavirus on businesses’ ability to prepare, the checks will be introduced in three phases up to 1 July. So, we have the ability to be flexible and pragmatic, and that is the approach we will take.

My Lords, I note my maritime general interests. The UK has very good ports and excellent people who have worked hard throughout the pandemic, and particularly now, to resolve current difficulties, which are not unique to the United Kingdom. The solution to some of these rests within the industry and great efforts are being made, but the Government also have an important role to play. There is scope for easements and flexibilities that can assist with the movement of goods, vehicles and trains in and out of ports: are these being followed with the greatest diligence possible?

I too pay tribute to the enormous amount of hard work going on in our ports at the moment. According to the World Shipping Council, we are currently beyond anything anyone could have predicted regarding the global container system, which is running hot. Therefore, we are doing whatever we can to support the ports. I had a call with a huge number of freight representatives yesterday, and we talked about what the Government are able to do. We have made adjustments to drivers’ hours for road hauliers who have food or food in mixed loads on the road; and, of course, we are working closely with the rail freight industry.

My Lords, it seems that the costs of implementing Brexit are great and bureaucracy has greatly increased as a result, which is the opposite of what we were promised. Does the Minister accept the assessment of Logistics UK that the current delays could last for months? How many people are being employed on the extra helplines for business and how are they being trained, given that the outcome of the current negotiations is so uncertain?

The outcome of the current negotiations will not impact the question of whether customs forms are needed or not. Essentially, the length and duration of any delays will depend on how quickly we can get hauliers and traders into the new regime of needing customs checks when they cross the border. This is something that happens across borders all over the world. We have 46 information and advice sites, which have had tens of thousands of visits, there is a haulier handbook, and we are working very closely with hauliers’ representatives to make sure that people are ready. We do not want to see delays continue for very long, but it really will be up to the industry to work with us.

Will the Minister bring us up to date on what lavatory and welfare facilities are available for lorry drivers, who will be delayed to some extent, whatever happens?

I reassure the noble Lord that we are working very closely with the Kent Resilience Forum and, indeed, with all the operators of the various contingency elements within Kent. We are looking at this and making sure that there are sufficient lavatory arrangements, that the sites are Covid secure and that drivers’ welfare is as good as it can be.

Can my noble friend confirm that delays at Dover are not unusual? On average, Operation Stack has had to be implemented 11 times a year over the last 20 years. In 2015, it was in operation for 23 consecutive days and queues of 7,000 lorries built up, with delays of 35 hours. It did not bring the United Kingdom to a halt, and nor will any teething problems with the new system. It did not attract much attention from those who now weep salt tears, with almost ghoulish delight, in anticipation of any problems that may temporarily occur.

It is the case that traffic across the short straits is very frequent. There is a large volume of it and when small incidents occur, back-ups can happen. Actually, at this moment we are facing not only post-Covid freight movements but pre-holiday stock building, end of transition period stock building and increased spending on consumer goods. So, while we recognise that these factors will play an important role as we head into January, I believe that, if hauliers and traders are ready, we can minimise any delays.

What is the Government’s estimate of the costs to date to businesses in the UK economy of current delays and congestion at our ports such as Felixstowe, Southampton and London Gateway, which together represent 70% of container freight coming into the UK? What is their estimate of the cost of these delays to businesses and the British economy?

I am not aware that the Government have done an assessment of that, because, of course, this is not a UK domestic problem but a global issue that is happening at the moment. What would normally happen is that the peak shipping time would be in October; what has happened this time is that it has extended well beyond October and is basically unprecedented. However, as I said to other noble Lords, we are working very closely with hauliers to improve container collection and working very closely with ports to make sure that there is sufficient capacity. A number of large container ships are changing their port of destination at quite short notice, so therefore there is a huge amount to be done. It is being done by private companies—it is a private sector—but the Government absolutely stand by, ready to help.