Following the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) United Kingdom’s roundtable held in March, debating how business and government can best collaborate to deliver global growth, Fred Osborn – national chairman of the British International Freight Association (BIFA) – talks to GTR about the nuts and bolts of trade, and why it is important to invest in an environment that is conducive to trade.

GTR: What are some of the issues impacting the global freight industry?

Osborn: Many countries – for instance those around Southeast Asia or Africa – see their customs authorities as a trade barrier instead of a trade facilitator. Certainly, current border approaches are very fragmented, with multiple bodies exercising different controls and with little co-ordination – slowing down the movement of goods across the world.

Even in the UK – where the government does at least seem to understand and recognise the problem – we have the HMRC, Border Force, Defra and Trading Standards, as well as other bodies, which leads to incoherent approaches to trade.

Of course, exacerbating the problem is the fact that many border authorities – particularly those in the emerging markets – use manual and paper systems, which not only means a greater chance of human error, but also makes it harder to harmonise systems.

GTR: What more could be done to remove such obstacles and facilitate trade?

Osborn: There is no doubt that the harmonisation of systems and procedures should be one of the top global priorities.

We need to re-introduce a body like the Simple Trade Procedures Board (SITPRO), which was a UK non-departmental public body. It focused on the removal of barriers to international trade through the simplification and harmonisation of trade procedures. SITPRO worked well because there was one central focus point to go to – and exporters, importers, and agents could access information easily. Unfortunately, SITPRO was closed in 2010 and there is no longer such a body to go to. Creating a similar body – or at the very least boosting the information flows between existing authorities – could ease the delays and challenges facing importers and exporters.

Of course, the harmonisation of procedures requires a greater focus on the maximisation of technology globally.

In particular, this would help with customs information. Technology would streamline processes surrounding tariffs and local legislation – and, in turn, this would avoid delays.

GTR: The freight logistics sector is the cornerstone to global trade. Besides the introduction of a single body to harmonise processes, is there anything government could do to help the freight industry in particular to facilitate trade?

Osborn: It would help if governments and authorities could support firms who demonstrate their compliance with the Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) – an internationally recognised mark indicating that your role in the international supply chain is secure, and that your customs controls and procedures are compliant. This would create more trust and eliminate the need to go through arduous controls at borders – meaning that trade could flow more smoothly for many companies worldwide.

GTR: The Trade Facilitation Agreement has the potential to transform the global trade landscape, yet needs support. What could we do to help get it ratified?

Osborn: The British International Freight Association (BIFA) is here to facilitate the movement of goods between manufacturers and exporters, and to streamline processes.

However, UK exporters often take the easy option and trade either with the EU (where there are no trade barriers) or they trade on an “ex works basis” – where the seller is only required to make goods ready for pick-up at their own place of business.

The Trade Facilitation Agreement, by helping to make international trade seamless, could encourage UK exporters to set more ambitious trade and expansion goals. Which, of course, boosts business for us in the freight industry, but also provides UK companies with new partners, new markets, and many opportunities to grow their companies.

We need to engage UK companies in an industry dialogue, which will raise awareness of the Trade Facilitation Agreement and its benefits.

GTR: Of course, helping corporates become aware of the benefits of global initiatives, such as the Trade Facilitation Agreement, is part of the role of ICC. What role can ICC play for the freight industry?

Osborn: The communication between business and government – whereby business can voice its concerns to government and government can, in turn, galvanise and gain the support of business – requires an interpreter. And ICC is able to act as that interpreter.

We, at BIFA, are able to sit down with ICC and outline the priorities of the freight industry – whether it be the harmonisation of fragmented processes, or any other concern – and know that it will be relayed to stakeholders and policymakers. And we are able to learn of the key issues and decisions that are being made at a global level, and provide our perspective.

GTR: Finally, in your opinion, how could a Brexit impact the freight industry?

Osborn: While BIFA takes a very neutral position on Brexit, there are those within the freight industry who would argue that leaving the EU could actually generate additional income for the UK’s freight industry – primarily because of the additional charges on borders and trade barriers that would be introduced.

However, working in the freight industry does provide you with a view into international trade, and it is important to consider the potential impact of a Brexit on other countries. If we look at Ireland, for example, a large percentage of Ireland’s exports go to Europe, and I would estimate that 80-90% of that trade transits through the UK. The impact on manufacturers in Ireland could therefore be quite significant in terms of the potential additional costs or regulations.

In time, I think it could be quite damaging for UK trade, and we also need to consider the knock-on effects for places like Ireland.