Northern Ireland Protocol: Freight boss ‘exasperated’ by EU red tape - and fears full implementation and end of TSS state support

A Randalstown businessman says that if state support schemes and regulatory grace periods for the NI Protocol are removed, many small businesses “may no longer be viable”.

Mark Tait, company director at Target Transport Limited in Randalstown, says he is “exasperated” by the impact of the Protocol on his company.

So far, the protocol adds some 50 hours of week of administration onto the shoulders of the company’s three employees.But he is very concerned about what the full impact will be when grace periods for red tape expire and the Government support agency - the Trader Support Service (TSS), winds up.His company acts as a broker between customers and haulage companies to get products from A to B - moving everything from small parcels to pallets or full container loads.

The additional freight costs since the Protocol came in is £20 per product type but he fears this could more than quadruple to £85 when the full strength of the protocol is implemented.

Mark Tait of Target Transport in Randalstown says the Northern Ireland Protocol could threaten the viability of many small businesses after EU grace periods and government administration support are withdrawn.

The Protocol was designed to keep NI in the EU single customs market in order to prevent EU customs posts on the Irish Border. Instead the checks are now done between NI and GB.

“I appreciate there are companies coming out and saying - yes the Protocol works for us,” Mr Tait told the News Letter. “I have no issue with that.

“But it can’t be that the protocol has to work for only half of industry, for example. It can’t be that some sectors get all the gain while others suffer all the pain.”Companies that manufacture in Northern Ireland and sell cross border into the GB market but do not necessarily buy supplies from the GB market - the protocol was always going to work for them. But 90% of my business is GB to NI and the rest with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the world.

“Our biggest supply and sales market is still GB - 75% of sales and supplies are to and from GB. We can’t just flick a switch and say we are going to move into the NI-ROI market only.”

He added: “Every time I read a newspaper article or listen to media regarding the Protocol, it invariably has the phrase ‘some checks on some goods at risk of crossing the border’ somewhere in the text or message. Whilst this is true it is also somewhat misleading. Yes it is true that there are some physical checks on goods when they arrive at Northern Ireland ports but the customs process actually means there are 100% of customs checks on 100% of the goods I move from GB to NI. This is where the crux of the problem we face lies.”

After the Protocol was implemented in January 2021 they had to add £20 per item to cover the costs of EU paperwork. “It is roughly 25% additional costs. Customers have to grudgingly accept it.”

“Because we are a small company I could do with more staff to cope but I can’t afford to. You just work more hours in the day - 45-50 hours a week extra over three staff to cope with the new paperwork.”He thinks Amazon parcels may currently avoid customs declarations because they are for personal use.

“I don’t really understand where this grace period on parcels is - because I haven’t seen it. The only thing I think so far for commercial goods is that nobody is chasing duties or taxes which may or may not be owed. But what happens when that grace period goes, which the EU is pushing for?”

Before Brexit he was able to arrange shipment of goods from GB to the Republic of Ireland for the next day. Now it can take seven to 10 days due to EU paperwork. He fears that the full implementation of the protocol will create the same delays for goods coming from GB into NI.

He is also concerned what will happen if and when the TSS is wound up. “It was implemented for a two year period and paid for by the government. I am assuming that by the end of 2023/24 the subsidised part of TSS will go and we will have to start paying for it.”

He estimates this will hike costs from £20 to £85 for a pallet or single product shipment. “This may be manageable for 30 pallets of the same product - but how do I tell a customer it may cost you more to customs clear one pallet than the freight costs to move it?”

The current £20 figure per pallet could then increase four fold, he adds. “By that stage if grace periods are removed and state backed assistance schemes are no longer available then many small businesses like my own may no longer be viable.  It is something that we may have to consider.

“In many senses it is not knowing what is happening which is the problem, whether you are pro or anti protocol. I am not getting into politics because it is very toxic. We are a business and all we are trying to do is move freight. You want some certainty but at the end of the day if the certainty is more of the same then at what stage do you think - is this really worth it?

The Protocol was designed to monitor goods coming into the EU via NI, he says.

“But the way it is being administered is that everything that comes into NI is classed as at risk of going into the Republic of Ireland - despite the fact that 75% of the freight that comes in here stays here - possibly more depending on the sector.”

He supports “the concept” of the Government plan to create a green customs lane with no customs declarations for goods coming from GB which are due to remain in NI. This would be complimented by a red lane for goods from GB which are due to be transported on to the Republic.

The wider haulage industry is suffering from the same issues, he says. “These are the pressures that they face. We are all having to do the same work day in and day out. I am exasperated by it.”

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