Last reviewed 26 November 2020

The UK is scheduled to finally leave the EU on 31 December 2020. As trade negotiations go into the final month of the transition period, and with Prime Minister Boris Johnson still insisting that he will not seek an extension, the options of either no deal or a very limited agreement are now the two most likely options. However, the Government has repeatedly made clear that irrespective of the outcome of the current talks, January 2021 will see the re-introduction into trade between the two sides of formalities and paperwork that have not been seen for almost 50 years.

With the new year also seeing the UK responsible for setting its own trade policy for the first time in several decades, what major changes can businesses expect?

Most Favoured Nation

The keystone to the new policy will be a Most Favoured Nation (MFN) tariff schedule replacing the EU’s Common External Tariff (CET). This was published by the Government after a public consultation drawing almost 1400 responses. MFN status is offered by members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to all other members and simply means that they will be treated equally: benefits and lower tariffs offered to one member must be offered to all, unless a trade agreement is in place.

Goods are not subject to the MFN requirement if they are traded between countries participating in such an agreement. The other main exception is that developing country pay less or no duty if they benefit from a scheme known as the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) (see GOV.UK for details).

UK Global Tariff

The Government’s MFN policy is embodied in the UK Global Tariff (UKGT). This will, it argues, be a simpler, easier to use (delineated in pounds not euros, for example) and lower tariff regime than the CET. It will, the Department for International Trade (DIT) says, scrap red tape and other unnecessary barriers to trade, reduce costs and increase consumer choice. Again, details are available from GOV.UK.

Businesses will face fewer administrative burdens as the new schedule will streamline and simplify nearly 6000 tariff lines. The changes include scrapping unnecessary tariff variations, rounding tariffs down to standardised percentages and removing all “nuisance tariffs” (those below 2%).

“We are also getting rid of the EU’s complex Meursing table,” the DIT explained, “allowing us to scrap thousands of unnecessary tariff variations on products — including over 13,000 tariff variations on products like biscuits, waffles, pizzas, quiches, confectionery and spreads.”

Changes in a nutshell

It is possible to download the full UKGT as an Excel file via the above link. This includes more than 11,000 lines, with the CET and UKGT duty shown side by side.

However, in short, the main changes include:

  • maintaining tariffs on agricultural products such as lamb, beef, and poultry

  • maintaining a 10% tariff on cars

  • maintaining tariffs for the vast majority of ceramic products

  • removing tariffs on £30 billion worth of imports entering UK supply chains with 0% tariffs on products used in UK production, including copper alloy tubes (down from 5.2%) and screws and bolts (down from 3.7%).

With regard to imports, the Government has focused reductions on those products likely to be of particular interest to consumers including:

  • dishwashers (down from 2.7%)

  • freezers (down from 2.5%)

  • sanitary products and tampons (down from 6.3%)

  • paints (down from 6.5%)

  • cooking products including baking powder (down from 6.1%), yeast (down from 12%), ground thyme (down from 8.5%) and cocoa powder (down from 8%)

  • scissors and garden shears (down from 4.7%)

  • bike inner tubes (down from 4%)

  • (although 1 January might be a little late to introduce this!) Christmas trees (down from 2.5%).

Tariffs are also cut on more than 100 “green” products to support renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon capture and the circular economy through recycling and reducing single use plastics.

Covid-19 items

Almost all pharmaceuticals and most medical devices (including ventilators) are tariff free in the UKGT. However, some products used to fight Covid-19 maintain a tariff. To ensure those working on the frontline can access vital equipment easily, the Government has introduced a temporary zero tariff rate on these products.

This relief waives the tariff and VAT for personal protective equipment (PPE), medical devices, disinfectant and medical supplies from non-EU countries.

The Government has said that it is committed to continuing to waive the tariffs on key Covid-19 items should this be necessary when it implements the UKGT in 2021. A list of the goods on which relief can be claimed is available at www.gov.uk/guidance.

How to check the tariff

Traders wanting to know how the UKGT will affect their business can check the tariffs that will apply from 1 January 2021 to goods they import by using the UKGT tool.

To use this service, they will need either the commodity code or description of their product. If they are unsure, there is a link from the GOV.UK site to guidance from HMRC explaining how to find commodity codes.