Post-Brexit checks on food products from the EU will not be implemented as planned, with ministers delaying their implementation for the fifth time after accepting they would drive up inflation.
The first stage of the UK’s new border model, originally set for October, is now delayed to January 2024, with physical checks and other requirements coming in throughout the next year.
The Conservatives were roundly attacked for the latest delay, with the Liberal Democrats accusing ministers of performing a "humiliating U-turn" and Labour saying they had allowed the issue to become a "chaotic mess".
Goods from Britain have faced EU controls since it left the bloc’s single market at the start of 2021, but the UK has repeatedly put off checks in the other direction.
According to the revised timetable, starting from January 31, 2024, imports of medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products, and high-risk non-animal origin food (and feed) from the EU will require health certification.
By April 30, 2024, these items will undergo documentary, identity, and physical checks, while imports of sanitary and phytosanitary goods from other parts of the world will adopt a new risk-based approach.
From October 31, 2024, safety and security declarations for EU imports will become mandatory, along with a more streamlined dataset for imports.
The Cabinet Office said that in developing the new regime, the government has been mindful of the potential impact on inflation, with an estimated impact on headline inflation expected to stand at less than 0.2% across three years.
Last week, the Financial Times reported the Government chose to enact the extension as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt wanted to delay the costs associated with the post-Brexit checks, which would add to food bills.
Downing Street said the government has been “mindful of the impact of inflation” but signalled that there would be no more delays.
Liberal Democrat Treasury and Business Spokesperson Sarah Olney said "this humiliating U-turn is just the latest example of Conservative chaos".
“Ministers have been forced to delay their plans amid warnings they’d make food even more expensive. Meanwhile small businesses spent millions preparing for the changes and are now left wondering what’s next."
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Labour's Shadow International Trade Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the move "confirms the chaotic mess the Conservative government has created on this important issue, which is now set to continue".
He added: "Leaving major changes until so close to the implementation deadline is unacceptable. It is yet another example of the challenges businesses face due to Conservative economic mismanagement."
The extension was confirmed as the Cabinet Office published its new “border target operating model”, which delineates the UK’s upcoming approach to safety and security controls on all imports, with a particular emphasis on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures for goods like live animals, plants, and animal products.
The Cabinet Office said: “Having listened to the views of industry, the Government has agreed to a delay of three months for the introduction of remaining sanitary and phytosanitary controls, as well as full customs controls for non-qualifying Northern Ireland goods, which will now be introduced from January 2024.
“To give stakeholders additional time to prepare for the new checks, further controls have a revised timetable. These include checks on medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products and high-risk food (and feed) of non-animal origin from the EU, implemented in April 2024, and safety and security declarations for EU imports, implemented in October 2024.”
Rishi Sunak's spokesperson insisted there would be no further extensions to the changes.
“Throughout this we have been mindful of the impact of inflation, but I am not aware of any plans to move beyond the dates we have set out. We are introducing a sufficient time to enable businesses and those affected to plan,” he said.
“That is what we have set out to them. It is worth being mindful that it is because of conversations with these businesses that we have brought in further time to plan so we have been listening to businesses throughout.”
Cabinet Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe said on the new border model: “Our border target operating model will ensure more efficient trading for businesses, protect against biosecurity threats and further crack down on illegal imports such as firearms and drugs.
“By making maximum use of data and new technologies, our innovative yet risk-based approach is key to delivering a world-class border system.
“Once fully implemented, these important post-Brexit measures will, I believe, bring considerable benefits to the UK economy and to UK trade, and the Government stands ready to support businesses through this transition.”