A £200m contract to implement Brexit checks on goods in the Irish Sea has been won by a consortium of companies led by Japanese company Fujistu.
HMRC announced on Friday that a two-year contract for the new trader support service (TSS) had been awarded to a consortium led by the tech company and its partners, the Customs Clearance Consortium, an organisation run by customs expert Robert Hardy and the Institute of Export and International Trade.
The latter counts among its patrons the former Ulster Unionist party leader Reg Empey, who is listed as one of the organisation’s vice-presidents.
Lord Empey said he had no involvement in the bid and his role as patron was entirely honorary.
The winning consortium, which also involves McKinsey consultants, said it was “very pleased to be the successful supplier” of what will be “a free service available to all traders moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and importing goods into Northern Ireland from the rest of the world, which will help them to comply with new requirements under the NI protocol”.
Empey was vehemently opposed to any Brexit deal that involved trade barriers down the Irish Sea but more recently called on cabinet ministers to stop denying their existence in the Brexit deal.
On Friday, he said he found the row between the UK and the EU over the checks as a “deeply deeply worrying” development. “The way both sides are using this place [Northern Ireland] as a bargaining chip is disgusting,” he said.
Businesses in Northern Ireland welcomed the trader support service, which effectively nationalises the Brexit bureaucracy for local businesses.
Seamus Leheny, policy manager for Logistics UK for Northern Ireland, said the TSS work would need to commence immediately. He said Fujitsu and its partners had huge task and responsibility. He added: “The TSS will need to be on their top game if it’s to succeed.”
Consultant Shanker Singham, one of the leading advocates of “alternative arrangements” to Theresa May’s backstop solution was not named in the government announcement but is known to have advised the bidders.
With the backing of former Conservative MP Nicky Morgan and the Tory MP Greg Hands, he worked closely with Fujitsu in developing an alternative system for Irish border checks last summer involving technology and mobile units away from the border.
The £200m contract is the first concrete implementation of the special Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Hinduja Global Systems is also in the consortium.
Earlier this week, the government gave the go-ahead for a second tender for works for sanitary checks at ports in Northern Ireland.
HMRC said TSS would go live at the end of September so businesses can register for support and start preparations for the end of the transition period.