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Marks & Spencer warns of gaps on shelves and higher prices in Northern Ireland

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Marks & Spencer has warned that customers in Northern Ireland will face gaps on shelves and price increases due to "labyrinthine restrictions" related to post-Brexit customs checks.

Its chairman, Archie Norman, said the rules were "pointless and byzantine" and "destructive" for business and called for a "common sense approach to enforcement".

The chain, which is one of the largest UK-based retailers operating in Ireland, is already cutting Christmas products in the region.

It has reduced the number of products offered in some ranges, such as cutting the number of sandwiches from 49 to 21. Items such as free-range chicken, its Best Ever Burgers or orchids are also failing to get through.

Supermarkets that ship products into Ireland face only light-touch checks under a so-called grace period that expires at the end of September when more stringent processes take effect.

In a letter to Brexit minister Lord Frost, Mr Norman - a former Conservative party MP - said the EU customs arrangements were "totally unsuited and were never designed for a modern fresh food supply chain between closely intertwined trading partners".

To get clearance at ports, M&S accounts for 40,000 pages of paperwork a week for goods into Ireland. From October that number trebles to 120,000 pages a week.

Just one error in these documents, which can be unrelated to food safety – such as a typing error on a product code – could lead to an entire truck of 650 items being refused, the retailer said.

There have been instances of trucks being turned away as agents rejected paperwork because of ink colour used or the position of a particular stamp; and delayed as the dairy content of chocolate chip cookies was debated, Marks & Spencer revealed.

Product availability in Dublin stood at about 75pc of normal, while the figure for fresh, fast-moving lines was even lower - 30pc for its biggest-selling prawn mayonnaise sandwich, for example.

The M&S intervention comes days after six major supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Co-op, Iceland and M&S – sent a joint letter to the Government and the European Commission to highlight their concerns.

They warned that the next phase of checks will force retailers to switch from British to EU suppliers. Together they represent more than three quarters of Northern Ireland's grocery market.

The British Retail Consortium said "disruption will become inevitable if the regime that will come into force in October is unrealistic and disproportionately onerous".

Mr Norman added in his letter: "Northern Ireland households have less than half of the UK average of discretionary income and the lowest levels of financial security in the UK.

"There is no other outcome for consumers in Northern Ireland in the end other than higher prices given the inflationary pressures being put onto retailers by the regulatory regime."

M&S is overhauling some of its supply chain to manufacture more food overseas and work more with domestic suppliers in Ireland to avoid further disruption. It is facing costs of up to £33m this year as grapples with the issue.

Retailers face yet more uncertainty after the EU rejected the UK's calls to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol yesterday afternoon.

Marks & Spencer said independent vet checks conducted on every product of animal origin on every truck could require about 1,500 multi page certificate manifests per week at the peak.

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