Boris Johnson’s government is to spend an initial £200m on a new service to help businesses in Northern Ireland comply with the bureaucratic costs of bringing in goods from Great Britain after Brexit.
The new “Trader Support Service” will be offered free of charge to help traders with the burden of new paperwork needed to move goods across the Irish Sea from Great Britain as a result of the Northern Irish Protocol, which aligns the region to both the EU customs code and the UK customs territory.
In addition Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, will announce £155m to fund digital technology to help smooth the new internal UK border created under the government’s Brexit deal from January 2021.
Mr Gove, who is due to visit Northern Ireland on Friday, will also commit £300m to fund projects to support peace, prosperity and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
He said: “Today’s £650m investment underlines our absolute commitment to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland as we move towards the end of the transition period.”
The new trader support service will help businesses bringing in goods to Northern Ireland from Great Britain or the rest of the world; it will issue guidance and carry out form-filling on their behalf.
As the bureaucratic costs of Brexit mount, officials said the government had an “enduring commitment” to meeting the additional post-Brexit costs of Northern Ireland traders, suggesting £200m was only the start.
Mr Gove is also looking at a separate package of support to help traders with additional health checks on animal and food products entering Northern Ireland, which will have an open EU border with the Republic of Ireland.
Ministers insist there will be “unfettered access” for goods travelling across the Irish Sea in the opposite direction from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The UK is pushing Brussels to remove the need for export summary declarations.
The Northern Irish Protocol requires all goods entering Northern Ireland to be compliant with the EU’s customs code as part of a deal signed by Mr Johnson last year to ensure Brexit did not create a trade border in Ireland.
The agreement has since attracted fierce criticism, both from hard Brexiters who argue that it impinges on UK sovereignty by erecting a trade border in the Irish Sea, but also from business groups who have warned it will massively increase costs.
According to a government impact assessment published in October 2019, Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s largest trading partner with purchases and sales of goods worth £18.1bn a year, accounting for more than half of Northern Ireland’s total external trade in goods.
Among the biggest concerns associated with the protocol are the potential cost of export health certificates and other paperwork to comply with the EU’s strict rules on animal and plant products.
Retail groups have warned these could cost many thousands of pounds for a single container of mixed supermarket goods, but officials said the new service is designed to absorb much of that cost as well as assist smaller traders.
Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing NI, the manufacturers lobby group, welcomed the decision by the government to “pick up the bill” for customs costs, but warned other issues, such as VAT rules, remained unresolved.
“This commitment to cover the customs costs is a very welcome first step but there is still more to be done including resolving SPS [plant and animal health] issues, VAT and legislating to protect Northern Ireland’s position in the UK’s internal market,” he said.