Why does Wales need Border Control Posts?

Published 01/03/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

Border control posts (BCPs) are located at ports and airports so that certain items entering a country can be checked, like goods, live animals and plants. This ensures they are safe and meet domestic requirements.

The UK needs more BCPs to check imports because of the terms of Brexit. It already has BCPs for imports from the rest of the world but now they are needed for imports from the EU, too.

Welsh Ministers are responsible for Wales’ biosecurity, food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls. SPS controls protect animal, plant and public health.

New BCPs are planned for Holyhead, Pembrokeshire and Fishguard ports to process EU imports when checks will be introduced from 31 January 2024.

UK-EU trade after Brexit: a new regime

Brexit means there are new rules for trade between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the EU. Different rules apply to different trade movements and to different items.

The Northern Ireland Protocol and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) govern this. However, some arrangements aren’t covered by either meaning more checks are needed.

The TCA established the post-Brexit UK-EU relationship. It doesn’t apply to trade in goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland which continues to move freely on the island of Ireland under the Protocol.

BCPs will play an important role checking imports from the EU. They’re particularly significant for Wales, whose ports link to Irish ports forming part of the UK land bridge between Ireland and mainland EU.

Northern Ireland Protocol: recap

To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the UK and EU agreed in the Protocol that Northern Ireland would continue to follow some EU rules after Brexit.

Trade checks normally required by the EU at its external boarders are carried out between Great Britain (Wales, Scotland and England) and Northern Ireland not at the Irish land border. Trade flows between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are treated as imports/exports for this purpose.

This is sometimes referred to as having created a border in the Irish Sea.

Despite their differences, the UK and EU agree that the Protocol has led to issues in Northern Ireland. Agreed changes, announced on 27 February, include the UK’s idea to have a green lane for Great Britain’s exports to Northern Ireland which need fewer checks than items going on to Ireland.

Since Brexit, checks on EU imports haven’t been introduced

Checks on EU imports to Great Britain should have started on 1 January 2021, immediately after the end of the Brexit transition period. The UK Government’s Border Operating Model (BOM), set out its plan to phase in checks gradually but this hasn’t begun.

In April 2022, the UK Government announced that it would postpone introducing checks for the fourth time. It has given different reasons for this, most recently to avoid additional costs for businesses and to prevent disruption at ports and to supply chains.

A draft of its new border strategy, the Target Operating Model (TOM), is expected in early 2023. Welsh Government officials have worked on the TOM with UK officials but Ministers haven’t agreed it yet.

Until checks are introduced, the UK has taken it on trust that EU imports meet GB requirements. The NFU has said that this places EU competitors at an advantage.

The EU began checking exports from Great Britain on 1 January 2021.

Checks have been postponed in Wales too

The Welsh Government has followed the UK Government’s decisions to postpone checks in devolved areas by consenting to UK regulations postponing them and making its own regulations.

The Welsh Government has queried in Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee whether one UK Government regulation fully complies with World Trade Organisation and TCA rules, to which the committee responded with concern (see paragraphs 43-44). Welsh Ministers are required to comply with the UK’s international obligations.

The Welsh Government planned to introduce pre-notification requirements on SPS goods from Ireland, but decided against it in December 2022 following stakeholder feedback. These will be introduced later in 2023.

However, the Welsh Government warned that the absence of pre-notification data leaves a “significant data gap” which has hampered BCP planning and development.

BCPs at Welsh ports

BCPs are planned for Holyhead, Pembroke Dock and Fishguard ports.

The Welsh Government says, construction is due to begin in “early 2023” ahead of checks starting from 31 January 2024.

Holyhead BCP, located at Parc Cybi, has progressed farthest in the planning process. In November, a Welsh Government update said that Holyhead BCP will be smaller than planned as the UK Government plans to revise its border operating model and postpone the introduction of checks. This will allow for HGV parking arrangements to continue on some of the land.

For the southwestern BCPs, the Welsh Government’s former preferred option was a single site at Johnston serving Pembroke Dock and Fishguard ports. Site surveys revealed a large number of bat species so it began considering alternatives.

In June 2022, Vaughan Gething, the Minister for Economy, suggested the requirements of southwest ports hinge on the UK Government’s revised TOM, including what it says about checks required at ports and physical checks on livestock.

The previous Welsh Government said in 2017 that making space at existing ports would be difficult and that establishing BCPs for the first time “breaks new ground for the Welsh Government, local authorities and many port owners”. The Minister for Economy said in 2021 that BCP construction is:

one of the largest and most complex infrastructure delivery programmes Welsh Government is engaged in.

In addition to BCP preparations, the Senedd’s former External Affairs Committee and the UK Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee warned that Welsh ports were not sufficiently prepared in the run up to Brexit.

Mapping it out

The location of Wales’ planned BCPs and Wales-Ireland shipping routes are shown on the map below:

The image is a colourful map of the UK showing BCPs in Wales. Dotted lines in different colours show the shipping routes between Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Ireland and the EU.

As it’s less onerous to move goods from GB-NI under the Protocol than it is to move goods direct from GB-EU under the TCA these post-Brexit arrangements have changed trade flows to and though Wales.

Protocol changes to reduce GB-NI trade barriers may further incentivise trade diversions from Welsh to English and Scottish ports. A recent British-Irish Parliamentary Association (BIPA) report explored the redirection of trade away from southern routes (i.e. between Welsh and Irish ports) towards northern routes (i.e. between the Mersey/Scottish and Northern Irish ports) taking advantage of the Protocol’s less complex requirements.

Welsh ports reported a sharp 50-60% reduction in trade volumes immediately after Brexit, which later plateaued at around 30% reduction. By 2022, trade through Holyhead had recovered slightly but remained at around 80% of pre-Brexit levels.

In parallel, by 2021 the number of direct Ireland-mainland EU shipping routes increased from 12 to 44 in the period since Brexit to avoid the UK land bridge which historically was faster and cheaper.

Academics at the London School of Economics warn that Wales “has no way to mitigate” these trade diversions.

On the horizon

A decision on a Welsh freeport is also expected soon from the UK and Welsh governments. Three bids are in the running from Holyhead, Cardiff Airport and Milford Haven and Port Talbot jointly (dubbed the ‘Celtic free port’). On 8 February, the Welsh Conservatives received 14 votes for their motion calling for two freeports, with 37 votes against.

With a new border model, BCPs, a renegotiated Protocol and a Welsh freeport all on the horizon, Senedd Members will have plenty to consider.

Article by Sara Moran and Sam Jones, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament