Plans for how post-Brexit border checks on goods coming into the UK from the EU will work have been set out by ministers.
The Government has published a draft border operating model, designed to bring in the checks the UK is required to make under its Brexit trade agreement with the EU.
Ministers have delayed implementing the checks on several occasions since the UK officially withdrew from the trade bloc on January 31, 2020.
Under plans published by the Cabinet Office on Wednesday, the Government says its new model will prevent delays at the border by reducing the need for physical checks for many types of goods.
The Government says that under the new model, investigations of animal and plant products would still be thorough enough to protect against diseases like African swine fever and Xylella, while also making it as easy as possible for businesses to import.
The customs and regulatory process is designed to be streamlined through the use of the “single trade window”, allowing traders to submit information about goods through one digital system.
A pilot trusted-trader scheme is also planned, in order to test further simplified processes for frequent importers.
Cabinet Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe said the draft strategy was a “huge step forward for the safety, security and efficiency of our borders”.
She added: “Our proposals strike a balance between giving consumers and businesses confidence while reducing the costs and friction for businesses, which in turn will help to grow the economy.”
Environment minister Lord Benyon said: “It is vital that we have strong border controls in place. Invasive diseases could cost our farms and businesses billions of pounds, threaten our food safety and break confidence in UK exports around the world.
Under the draft plans, health certificates for animal and plant products crossing from Europe could be introduced by October 31, with further measures planned at two further milestones throughout 2024.
Ministers are encouraging businesses to prepare for the new regime ahead of the Halloween start date.
William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The BCC is a big believer in the shift to a digital trade system.
“If it is done properly then smaller firms will see benefits when it comes to importing goods into Great Britain.
“Providing certainty for business is crucial and the focus must now be on delivering to the timescales set out. This will need a concerted effort to get the physical and digital infrastructure in place.
“It is then vital that companies, here and across the world, involved in sourcing and supply chains, are properly prepared for these changes and the introduction of new trusted-trader arrangements.
“We look forward to working closely with the UK Government and businesses over the coming months to make sure this switchover runs as smoothly as possible.”
The British Retail Consortium urged ministers to step up its communication with retail businesses to ensure they are prepared for the changes.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC, said: “With only six months until new checks on food imports are introduced, it is imperative the Government steps up its engagement with retailers and their European suppliers to ensure the supply chains are prepared, preventing any disruption for customers and businesses.
“Ports and farmers will also need to be ready for physical checks from January, when the UK is particularly reliant on imported produce.”
Tina McKenzie, policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) welcomed the changes, claiming that “small firms that import from the EU and worldwide to the UK have been overwhelmed by complex customs paperwork and lack clear guidance on navigating border controls”.
But she said some small enterprises had been deterred from foreign trade in recent years, and encouraged the Government to “adopt a ‘think small first’ approach to customs policy development and place small businesses at the heart of new trade and customs structures to avoid disproportionate cost or administrative burdens”.
The Liberal Democrats said the new model would “make trade between us and Europe harder”.
Lib Dem Treasury spokeswoman Sarah Olney said: “It’s staggering that the Conservatives looked at the chaos at Dover and said ‘more of that please’.
“The Government’s claims that these plans are going to ease trading chaos are downright dishonest.
“Let’s be clear, these proposals mean more checks and more red tape, not less – the last thing anyone wanted.”
The Government will now spend six weeks consulting with business, with a final model for trade checks due to be published later this year.