Four Brexit red tape horror stories

Brexit correspondent Lisa O’Carroll distils a few of the post-exit bumps facing individual British firms that she has investigated for the Guardian

February 27, 2021
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Hard cheese

Cheesemaker Simon Spurrell reports losing a fifth of his orders overnight when Britain left the single market on 1st January. His Cheshire Cheese Company had a successful line in selling packs of wax-wrapped cheese, worth £25-£30, direct to European customers, but it has turned out that every order requires a £180 health certificate, rendering the trade unviable. He will now divert a planned £1m investment in a distribution centre from Macclesfield to France, moving 20 jobs. Spurrell had spoken to Defra in advance, and was ready for changes in wholesale, but had had no warnings on the retail side. And he now also faces issues in wholesale, after his main distributor has said it’s no longer worth the paperwork to ship consignments into Northern Ireland. He markets to North America and Norway outside the EU without difficulty, suggesting the problem could be resolved—but only if the politics is conducive.

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Tough medicine

An unnamed Welsh pharmaceutical company was forced to throw out hundreds of packs of cancer treatment which had been headed to EU patients, because Brexit-induced export delays ran up against the time-sensitive medicine’s sell-by date. Ian Price, the Confederation of British Industry’s director in Wales, highlighted the case to MPs, and said the firm had responded by moving production of this drug to Dublin. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has also warned of future problems and called for a mutual recognition agreement on “batch testing” (scientific tests on the composition of drugs in every batch produced) so that such tests are not duplicated in future every time drugs move to the EU from the UK. This takes “an average of six weeks and costs £1,500 per batch,” the ABPI wrote to the same committee of MPs.

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You’ve made your bed

Online retail from the continent has got costlier and more complex, as Briton Ian Benton has discovered. He runs luxury bed linen retailer Lachambreparis.com from Paris. He continues to charge VAT under the French system, and UK orders below a £135 threshold can still pay that way, although everyone incurs a new courier charge (€12 with Royal Mail) for customs processing. The real trouble starts above £135, a limit that just catches his average €170 order—for a duvet, sheet and pillow set. On this average order, VAT of €34 is now incurred at point of import, and payable—together with an enhanced customs handling charge—on receipt. Benton then has to reimburse the point-of-sale tax, though not the customs clearance charge. He fears the on-the-doorstep fees could deter purchases and result in parcels being returned or languishing at Post Office depots uncollected. “It has been horrendous trying to explain this to customers,” he says.

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The wood for the trees

Northern Irish orders for almost 100,000 British trees—including 22,000 the Woodland Trust had hoped to plant in schools and communities—have been cancelled amid Brexit restrictions. Scotland’s Alba Trees saw “a huge chunk of our business” destroyed “at a stroke,” turning down an “order of 70,000 oaks… because we can’t ship them.” Three separate rules are involved: a ban on importing British soil (washing soil off roots is offered as a solution here); paperwork to certify plant health; and an EU list of species restricted for import from “third countries” designed to keep out diseases. But, says a despairing George Fulton of the Woodland Trust, “the irony is that I can now get a tree easier from Latvia than I can from Britain, which totally undermines all the work on biosecurity.” He had hoped the “ludicrous” disruption was a mere “teething problem,” but as of late February local businesses were still lobbying the EU. Defra suggested, however, that a UK-EU “steer” to unblock the situation was imminent.

Now read Jill Rutter on the wider consequences of the Brexit deal