British government to spend over £530m on post-Brexit service

Expenditure forthcoming for businesses moving goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, according to watchdog

More than £530 million (€619 million) will be spent by the British government on a post-Brexit service for businesses moving goods from Britain to Northern Ireland, according to a watchdog report.

The Trader Support Service (TSS) was set up four years ago in advance of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

A UK National Audit Office (NAO) report, published today, scrutinises the cost and impact of new arrangements and whether the government is on course to implement “an efficient and effective” trade border.

Auditors note plans are still being finalised for Northern Ireland as set out in the Windsor Framework deal agreed last year and the Safeguarding the Union Command Paper in February — which replaced the controversial Northern Ireland protocol and aimed to simplify trade rules.


The UK civil service may need to work with the NI Civil Service (NICS) to “help Northern Ireland benefit from its unique access to the UK and EU markets”, according to the report.

“Northern Ireland businesses are in a unique position regarding the terms of their access to the UK and EU markets. However, the regulatory environments in the UK and the EU may diverge over time, potentially increasing costs for NI businesses wishing to operate in both markets,” it adds.

Auditors warn of “particular challenges” for the NICS, in that it is likely to require “increased capacity and skills to monitor changes and understand the potential impact on the NI economy, and to influence decision-making on regulatory issues in both the EU and the UK”.

The latest NAO report, The UK Border: Implementing an effective trade border, examines the estimated cost of the TSS, a scheme under which the British government effectively acts as a customs agent on behalf of businesses moving goods from Britain to Northern Ireland by completing customs declarations and safety and security declarations.

“In January 2024 it [the government] forecast it will have spent £531 million between December 2020 and December 2024 in supplier costs on providing this service,” it states.

New controls are being phased in across the UK focusing on higher-risk areas such as plant and animal products that are more likely to be carrying pests and disease.

Among the “key deliveries” over the next year is a plan to “fully operationalise” the so-called red lane for goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain that are to be moved on to the Republic. These goods will still be subject to checks to ensure they comply with EU regulations.

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The report calls for “clear guidance” for traders.

“Some elements of the plans have not yet been finalised, including the details for moving goods through the red lane and the new UK internal market system. NICS departments told us that traders had sought clarity around some of these arrangements and they were concerned that failure to provide this in a timely manner could deter businesses from investing in NI,” it states.

Plans to replace the “green lane concept with a broader UK internal market system” and a target to complete the “permanent infrastructure required for carrying out checks” are also mentioned along with the expansion of the Not for EU labelling scheme on goods.

Auditors highlight the need for sufficient staff to cope with the “the scale of arrangements required”.

“The authorities in NI have staff to deal with the additional requirements already in place. For example, in 2020, Border Force recruited 50 staff to support checks. Further staff may be required once there is greater clarity about the volume of goods being moved through the new processes and the compliance arrangements to be put in place.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times