Michael Gove – 2020 Statement on the End of the Transition Period

The statement made by Michael Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, in the House of Commons on 23 September 2020.

With permission, I would like to make a statement on preparations for the end of the transition period.

There are now just 100 days to go until the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, and that will be a moment of great opportunity, but also of significant change and challenge. It is vital that we all take the steps required to grasp those opportunities, and to meet and master those challenges. The Government are of course committed to negotiating a new free trade agreement with the EU before the end of the transition period, and those talks are progressing; but whatever the outcome of those negotiations, things will change for businesses and individuals as they trade with and travel to the EU. It is important that we, as parliamentarians, all understand that, and that we all take action to prepare.

Whether we secure a good FTA before January or not, whether we get a Canada-style deal or exit on Australian terms, we will have left the single market and the customs union, and that fact means adjustments for businesses trading with the EU; changes for citizens travelling to the EU; and, of course, new responsibilities for Government in both scenarios.

The superb civil servants at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and their colleagues across Government are working with business to ensure that exporters and importers are ready for new rules. Every business trading with Europe will need to thoroughly familiarise itself with new customs procedures and, whether they develop their capacity in-house or work with a customs intermediary, enhanced preparation is vital. The Government have invested in increasing customs agent capacity and supported growth in the sector, and of course we stand ready to do more. HMRC is also able to support businesses to secure authorised economic operator, consignor and consignee status, which will ease the flow of goods.

Businesses that are fully ready for life outside the customs union will also be better prepared for the growing number of export opportunities outside Europe, as the UK establishes new trade relationships with partners across the globe following the highly successful conclusion of our new trade deal with Japan. Because preparing for customs procedures will be required with or without a free trade agreement, these adjustments cannot be left until the last minute. More and more businesses are becoming fully prepared, but there are still many that have not quite taken the steps they need to take. Our survey evidence indicates that while 78% of businesses have taken steps, just 24% believed that they are fully ready. Indeed, 43% of businesses believe that the transition period will be extended, even though the deadline for any extension is now long past and the date on which we leave the single market and the customs union is fixed in law and supported across the House.

The Government are taking action to prepare for that date, with the XO Committee—the EU Exit Operations Committee, the Cabinet Committee charged with preparations for the end of the transition period—now meeting almost daily and taking decisions on trader and haulier readiness, border infrastructure and fisheries ​protection. The Committee has met 136 times since it was established, and it will continue to meet to ensure that we have taken all the steps required to prepare, but we also need businesses to prepare. The consequences of a lack of business preparedness will be not just missed economic opportunities for those companies that do not prepare but potentially much wider disruption.

That is why today we are publishing our reasonable worst case scenario planning assumptions, indicating what could happen if we do not all secure improved preparedness. I should stress that this is not a prediction or a forecast; it is just a prudent exercise in setting out what could, in the worst circumstances, occur if we do not improve preparedness and, of course, if our neighbours decline to be pragmatic. The scenario builds on an estimate that only 50% to 70% of large businesses and just 20% to 40% of small and medium-sized enterprises will be ready for the strict application of new EU requirements. In those circumstances, that could mean that only between 30% and 60% of laden heavy goods vehicles would arrive at the border with the necessary formalities completed for the goods on board. They would therefore be turned back by the French border authorities, clogging the Dover to Calais crossing. In that scenario, flows across the critical short-strait crossings could be reduced by up to 60% to 80%, compared with the normal rate, and such circumstances could lead to queues of up to 7,000 HGVs in Kent. Those queues and the associated disruption and delay would of course subside, as unready businesses that had had their goods turned back at the French border would not want to repeat the experience, but it is clearly far better for everyone to be aware now of what is needed to prepare, rather than face additional disruption next year. This is why we are publishing our reasonable worst-case scenario today: not just because any prudent Government will always prepare contingency plans for the worst, but to illustrate the costs of a lack of preparedness while there is still plenty of time to prepare.

The Government are committed to doing whatever it takes to help business, and we have brought in a comprehensive series of measures to help businesses and individuals to adapt to the changes ahead. We are helping businesses that import by introducing new border controls on imports in stages, and full controls will be imposed only from July of next year. We have produced a comprehensive border operating model, which provides a simplified guide, complemented by the work of gov.uk for business, and we will be publishing an updated version with more granular detail in the coming weeks. We have invested £705 million in new technology, infrastructure and jobs at the border, and we are ensuring extra personnel: Border Force has recruited more than 1,000 additional staff, with hundreds more being recruited now. We have also made available over £80 million in grants for organisations to recruit and train new customs agents to support an expanded customs intermediary sector.

A new network of information and advice sites will help to ensure that hauliers are up to speed with their new requirements and the correct paperwork. They will be able to check that their documentation is export-ready using the new Smart Freight web portal. We have complemented all this activity with a public information campaign to help businesses to prepare. The campaign communicates the actions that all businesses need to ​take before the end of the transition period, and there is a user-friendly checker tool on the gov.uk/transition page, which details exactly what businesses need to do.

The Government are taking all these steps to help businesses to prepare, because change requires preparation. But change is what the British people voted for because, outside the single market and the customs union, the UK can exercise all the freedoms and flexibilities of a truly sovereign state. Outside the common agricultural policy, we can support our farmers better and enhance our natural environment. Outside the common fisheries policy, we can revive our coastal communities and improve our marine environment.

We can strike new trade deals, which help developing nations to grow faster and lower prices for consumers. We can develop tailored policies to better support new technologies and level up our economy. We can invest the money that we currently send to Brussels in the NHS, in our science base and in improving productivity in all the nations of the United Kingdom. We can develop freeports, which bring investment to overlooked communities. We can regulate more smartly, legislate more accountably and strengthen our democracy.

These are great prizes, and the British people voted in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election to make sure they were delivered. This Government are committed to honouring those democratic choices, and I commend this statement to the House.