The British government's lack of understanding and overly political approach to post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland has left businesses there in the dark, a Westminster committee has claimed.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has condemned the British government for leaving businesses ill-prepared for the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

The committee's findings come after members conducted an inquiry into the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, which ensures there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland remains in the UK's customs territory, but it applies EU customs law, and it effectively stays in the EU’s single market for goods.

The sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland therefore becomes the Single Market’s de facto external border.

Boris Johnson's government has acknowledged this will mean more regulatory checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, with the expansion of infrastructure to carry out sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) screening of animals and food products.

But it has insisted there will be no new physical customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland.

A report by the committee, which is made up of Conservative, Labour, SDLP, Alliance and DUP MPs, criticised the British government's plans and questioned its claim that Northern Ireland companies will have unfettered access to the Great Britain market from 2021 onwards.

The committee called on ministers to provide more detail to businesses on trading arrangements by October.

Its report said businesses should also be reimbursed for the cost of protocol compliance.

It also called for a "Plan B" for ensuring unfettered access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in the event the UK and EU fail to strike a comprehensive trade deal ahead of the end of the transition period.

Belfast port

Committee chairman Simon Hoare said: "Political process must not trump the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. The government may be able to wait until the wire for clarity on customs arrangements, but business cannot.

"Those trading across the Irish Sea have been told to prepare without knowing what to prepare for. It's now time for them to get that clarity, and they must have it by October.

"If not, business will not have time to prepare for the realistic prospect of friction and delays to products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This will increase their costs, with an accompanying increase in the cost of living.

"Such frictions would be incompatible with the notion of 'unfettered access' touted by government ministers.

"It would put Northern Ireland at a competitive disadvantage compared with the rest of the UK and would damage business confidence at a time when it has seldom been lower.

"If this happens, business must be reimbursed for the cost of complying with the Northern Ireland Protocol."

Mr Hoare highlighted that many businesses were already struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

"There is no need, and no reason, to add insult to injury for political gain," he said.

"The government needs to stop gambling with the future of business and of the people of Northern Ireland.

"Instead, it must set out detailed and realistic proposals on how customs processes will work and which goods will be affected.

"Unfettered access was promised, but it looks less and less likely that it will be delivered.

"Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and it must not experience particular disadvantage because of Brexit."