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IT systems failures at the UK border have caused major delays to fresh food shipments from the EU, with importers complaining of chaos at the busiest border post as lorries were delayed by more than 24 hours.

Sky News understands a key software system crashed at the weekend, leaving shipments of meat, cheese, fresh food and flowers being held for long periods as paperwork was processed by hand.

The system failure comes just two weeks after the introduction of new processes the government promised would be “world-leading”.

Physical checks on food and plant imports from the EU were introduced at the end of April as part of a long-delayed post-Brexit border regime.

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Imports coming through the UK’s busiest port at Dover are now routed through a new border facility 22 miles inland at Sevington in Kent, where paperwork is supposed to be cleared and any physical checks carried out.

Lorries arriving this weekend however faced long delays and chaotic scenes as a result of the the failure of the Automatic Licence Verification System (ALVS).

The ALVS system is supposed to automatically clear goods through customs and, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), deliver “a substantial time and efficiency saving for trade”.

Instead, border staff and importers faced problems almost immediately, with the most acute issues last weekend particularly affecting imports from Italy.

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Brexit border checks to ‘add billions’

Patricia Michelson, founder of La Fromagerie, which imports cheese and other produce from Europe, told Sky News her consignments of fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese and cured meats were delayed by more than 48 hours.

Scheduled to be delivered at 6am on Monday they did not arrive until Tuesday morning after the lorry was delayed at Sevington, leaving some of the produce spoiled or unfit for sale because it may not have been kept chilled.

“It is unforgivable, we have spent days and weeks on making sure that we were ready for the new systems, that we get the paperwork right, we have checked and rechecked to make sure it ran smoothly.

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New Brexit rules impacting flowers

“Then we find the systems crash, apparently because of a power outage, and our goods are being turned back and then held for hours.

“They built a major new system, doubtless spending millions, and at the second time of asking it doesn’t work. All we got from DEFRA by way of explanation was saying everything is in hand, when we know it is total chaos.”

Ms Michelson said the system failures had added to the challenge of post-Brexit border controls for small independent businesses.

“The big suppliers and importers have the scale to pay people to run their imports, but for smaller operators like me it just adds cost and disruption.”

Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Association, said his members had encountered “total chaos” at the border since the weekend, with ongoing issues that will hit traders hard.

On Tuesday a DEFRA spokesperson confirmed that, three days after the crash, systems were still not restored.

A power outage over the weekend affected one of the systems required to process imports. For the majority of vehicles at the border there were no significant delays, but we immediately activated contingency arrangements for affected vehicles, working alongside HMRC and Border Force.

“We are working at pace to resolve the issue and expect that systems will be returning to normal functioning soon. Since the introduction of checks, our teams have been working closely with traders to ensure checks are completed efficiently and swiftly.”

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Indian pharma group readies swoop on anti-smoking aid Nicotinell

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Indian pharma group readies swoop on anti-smoking aid Nicotinell

An Indian pharmaceutical group is closing in on a deal to snap up Nicotinell, the anti-smoking aid, from Haleon, its FTSE-100 parent company.

Sky News has learnt that Hyderabad-based Dr Reddy’s Laboratories could be within days of acquiring the brand and a number of lesser-known European products from Haleon.

Sources said a deal was likely to be announced as soon as this week.

It was unclear on Sunday how much Dr Reddy’s might pay for the Haleon-owned assets, although it is expected to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Should it be completed, it will be the latest in a string of acquisitions for the Indian- and US-listed company.

Dr Reddy’s has a market value in New York of about $11.7bn, having been established in 1984.

In Britain, the company has had a presence since 2002, and includes commercial offices and a research and development centre in Cambridge.

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It also operates an active pharmaceutical ingredient manufacturing site in Mirfield, West Yorkshire.

Dr Reddy’s has been in talks for months about acquiring the Nicotinell brand from Haleon, the over-the-counter products giant spun out of FTSE-100 drug maker GlaxoSmithKline.

Haleon, which has a market capitalisation of close to £29.5bn, is chaired by the former Tesco chief executive Sir Dave Lewis.

GSK sold its remaining stake in Haleon earlier this month.

Haleon owns some of the most recognisable over-the-counter healthcare brands in Britain, including the multivitamin supplement Centrum, Panadol pain relief tablets and Sensodyne toothpaste.

Nicotinell, which is sold in patch, gum and lozenge form, is said to be the second-largest nicotine replacement therapy product globally.

Its prospective sale will come days after Rishi Sunak’s administration failed to pass his flagship anti-smoking bill after he called a surprise summer general election.

Haleon declined to comment.

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FTSE-100 housebuilder Persimmon weighs £1bn bid for rival Cala

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FTSE-100 housebuilder Persimmon weighs £1bn bid for rival Cala

One of Britain’s biggest housebuilders is exploring a £1bn takeover bid for Cala Group, a rival player in the sector which has been put up for sale.

Sky News has learned that Persimmon, which has a market value of £4.74bn, is leaning towards submitting an offer for Cala ahead of a bid deadline next week.

City sources said it would be a strong contender to buy Cala, whose homes have a significantly higher average sale price than those of Persimmon.

Insiders expect Cala, which is being auctioned by Legal & General (L&G), to command a price tag of about £1bn.

If Persimmon is successful in the auction, it would mark the York-based company’s biggest acquisition for years.

Under Roger Devlin, its chairman, and chief executive Dean Finch, the company’s share price has rallied by over 20% in the last year.

In a trading update last month, Persimmon said it was on track to deliver growth in new home completions this year to up to 10,500.

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The Cala auction comes amid a general election campaign in which new home provision is expected to figure prominently.

Both main parties are likely to set out new policies to stimulate housebuilding growth, according to sources.

Analysts said this weekend that other housebuilders were also expected to consider bids for the L&G-owned company.

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These could include, they said, Persimmon’s larger rival, Taylor Wimpey, and Avant Homes, which is owned by Elliott Advisors and Berkeley DeVeer.

Persimmon is the UK’s third-largest housebuilder by market capitalisation, behind Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Developments.

Both Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey were among eight housebuilders named by the Competition and Markets Authority in February over suspicions they had exchanged commercially sensitive information.

A takeover of Cala by another major housebuilder would underline fresh momentum in the industry’s consolidation, after Barratt Developments unveiled a £2.5bn deal to acquire rival Redrow.

The prospective sale of Cala represents the first significant strategic move by its new chief executive, Antonio Simoes.

Bankers at Rothschild are overseeing the auction.

Mr Simoes described Cala as “a very strong business” during an earnings call earlier this year on which he was quizzed about the housebuilder’s future ownership.

L&G took full control of the business in 2018.

Cala reported a slide in half-year profits last autumn, citing a “challenging market”.

The company has a long-term goal to build 3,000 homes annually.

Persimmon and L&G declined to comment on Saturday.

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Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells admits removing reference to Horizon IT system from Royal Mail prospectus

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Ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells admits removing reference to Horizon IT system from Royal Mail prospectus

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has admitted to amending the legal document Royal Mail issued to would-be investors before it became publicly owned to remove mention of the flawed Horizon IT system.

Data from the accounting software created by Fujitsu was used to prosecute more than 700 sub-postmasters for theft and false accounting.

Many more victims lost their homes, livelihoods and good reputation to repay non-existent shortfalls.

Now the inquiry set up to establish a clear account of the introduction and failure of Horizon has heard during Ms Vennells’s third and final day of questioning that she removed “at the very last minute” reference to Horizon from the prospectus Royal Mail issued before it was listed on the London Stock Exchange.

A prospectus is a legal and financial document detailing key information for potential company investors.

It was the first time the issue was raised with Ms Vennells.

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Paula Vennells breaks down in tears again

She said: “It was flagged to me that in the IT section of the Royal Mail prospectus, there was reference to – I can’t remember the words now – but risks related to the Horizon IT system… the line that was put in said that no systemic issues had been found with the Horizon system.”

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Ms Vennells wanted the reference removed as, “the Horizon system was no longer anything to do with the Royal Mail group” she said, and contacted the company secretary to have the reference removed.

Based on this action Ms Vennells wrote to a colleague “I have earned my keep on this”.

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She was at the top of Post Office for 12 years and served as its chief executive for seven of those, from 2012 to 2019.

In at times emotional testimony, Ms Vennells said she “loved the Post Office” and worked “as hard as I possibly could to deliver the best Post Office for the UK”.

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