We don't expect Brexit disruption at Holyhead, Gove tells Welsh MP

Michael Gove visited the port of Holyhead in August 2019 Credit: PA, Peter Byrne

The UK Government insists that steps it has taken will avoid disruption at Holyhead port when the Brexit transition period ends on December 31st, even if no trade deal is agreed with the European Union.

In a letter to the Anglesey MP Virginia Crosbie, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that the UK Government was working closely with the Welsh Government and the Irish Government to avoid delay and confusion. 

However there remains uncertainty over a site for lorries to go through checks and the possible impact of firms in the republic of Ireland finding alternative routes to get their goods to mainland Europe.

The Irish Taoiseach has confirmed that that option is being considered but denied that his government has told businesses to bypass Holyhead.

Meanwhile, Wales’ Brexit minister says “it’s very late in the day” for some of the work which still needs to be done and that “we are seriously concerned about being able to do it on time.”

The port of Holyhead is one of the busiest ferry ports in the UK

The port on Anglesey is one of the busiest ferry ports in the UK with hundreds of lorries passing through it every day.

There are major concerns that customs checks could lead to chaos and there remains uncertainty about the impact on the port and the wider Welsh economy. 

Virginia Crosbie MP Credit: House of Commons

The island's Conservative MP, Virginia Crosbie wrote to Michael Gove, who's overseeing the transition period for the UK Government, to raise those concerns.

She said “any potential threat [to Holyhead] must be taken seriously.” And she said she’s been reassured:

"The continuity of trade through the port of Holyhead post-Brexit is, of course, of paramount importance.  The port is a mainstay of the economy of Ynys Môn and any potential threat to it must be taken seriously.  I was pleased to raise the concerns of my constituents with Rt Hon Michael Gove MP and I am reassured by the response I received."

Further details from his letter are below.CUSTOMS CHECKS IN ENGLAND?

The Daily Post recently reported that interim plans could see lorries going through Holyhead undergoing customs check in Birmingham or Warrington with an agreement still not reached on a site on the island.

A Companies House search reveals a business known as “Lorry Park (Holyhead)" registered with a Warrington address.

In his letter Michael Gove confirms that a permanent site won’t be in place until August 2021 but doesn’t state where that site will be.

He writes that UK and Welsh Governments are looking at a short-list of three sites. “An interim site will be active from January 1, 2021. “I would like to reassure you that we do not expect disruption at Holyhead.” 

IRISH FIRMS AVOIDING? 

Last week the Irish Taoiseach denied that firms in the Republic were being told to avoid Holyhead but acknowledged that contingency plans were looking at ways of doing just that.

A report issued by the Irish Government in September urged firms which trade with mainland Europe to Consider moving, in advance of the end of the transition period, to direct route options for the movement of goods from Ireland to the Continent to avoid potential delays and the new procedures associated with using the UK landbridge.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin Credit: Brian Lawless/PA

I asked the Taoiseach if that amounted to a recommendation to avoid Holyhead in a virtual press conference following a meeting of the British-Irish council last week.

Micheál Martin said:

“We want to keep the situation as consistent as the current status quo in terms of trade. We’re not saying to people don’t go to this port or that port, not at all, but obviously, in the event of a no-deal or an unsatisfactory situation emerging, we have to prepare contingencies and make sure that our goods in particular can get to their markets as quickly as they possibly can. 

“But our preference is for existing arrangements and existing situations to continue and the optimum way, in our view, to achieve that is for a sensible agreement to emerge from the EU-UK talks.”

The First Minister Mark Drakeford answered my question by saying, "The better the deal, the more those ports are protected. The worse the deal or no deal at all, the greater will be the impact of them."

While Michael Gove, who took part in the same press conference, said “It is the case that we’re working well with the Irish government and of course with the Welsh Assembly Government in order to make sure that all facilities in Holyhead are all that they need to be. And of course I completely understand the point the Taoiseach makes about Irish businesses, like businesses across all these islands, being ready for every eventuality but we all hope we can secure a good, negotiated outcome.”

Meanwhile in his letter to Virginia Crosbie, Mr Gove says that UK Government plans to introduce any border controls in stages will ease any possible problems:

“You mentioned the “reasonable worst case scenario planning assumption" risks that were reported in the press. The document stated that there is unlikely to be sustained and significant disruption at ports other than the short Strait [of Dover] ports. As I said in my statement to the House on 23 September, goods coming from Ireland to Wales should not face impediment because we are staging our processes."

Virginia Crosbie has welcomed the assurance.

“I know how hard the Government is working to secure a trade agreement with the EU.  There are complex matters to be discussed and the Government is right to stand up for an agreement which is fair for all and is not detrimental to the UK.

“Of course, the implications of the Irish Government’s comments should not go unremarked.  It is only right that any Government should seek to understand and plan for a range of outcomes, as the Irish Government is doing.  However, both the Taoiseach and the Welsh First Minister have said that they want to maintain a situation as consistent with the current model as possible.  This is something that the UK Government is also striving to achieve.  

"It is clear from the letter I received from Mr Gove – and indeed from the recent updates to the Border Operating Model – that the UK is making solid preparations for Brexit despite uncertainty as to the final outcome of negotiations.  I have had the opportunity to share regular input with HMRC who are working with key stakeholders to find a location on Anglesey for freight checks in order to ease any potential disruption and boost local employment opportunities.  I will, of course, continue to fight to ensure the best outcome for Holyhead.”

HOLYHEAD ACCESS PERMIT?

Lorries queuing at the Port of Dover Credit: PA, Aaron Chown

From January 1st, lorries crossing at Dover will need a Kent Access Permit to try to stop the county’s roads being clogged up.

It’s designed to ensure businesses making the crossing complete their checks online. In his letter Michael Gove says the checking system will be on offer to firms using Holyhead but won’t be mandatory. Instead, he says, Holyhead port is looking at an alternative system. 

Whilst this is not mandatory for the non-Strait ports, including for the port of Holyhead, it will be available for use by drivers and haulage companies to ensure the readiness of lorries and to minimise potential disruption. Holyhead port is considering adopting GVMS (Goods Vehicle Movement Service) which will reduce the number of times that lorries will need to stop at the port when travelling under transit.”

Jeremy Miles MS, Minister for European Transition Credit: PA Images

The Welsh Government remains concerned.

Counsel General Jeremy Miles, who is the minister for European Transition, told me a lot of very difficult decisions are being left very late.

"We've been talking to the port operators obviously we're concerned about some of the changes which might affect trade through the ports, because of the changes to the Northern Ireland protocol and the rules in Northern Ireland.

"So, trying to understand better what that means for the ports. also making plans to manage some of the traffic disruption which might happen as a result of the new border checks that will come into force on the first of January, and also working with the UK Government to make sure that we've got the right infrastructure and the ports to make those checks happen.

"But, you know, this is very late in the day for us to be brought into some of this work, and we are seriously concerned about being able to do it on time, but we're doing everything we can, and we're working with the port's local government and the UK Government.