New law aims to enable ‘paperless trade’ for UK firms

Proposed legislation will mean businesses selling overseas will no longer need to use a range of hard-copy documents

Credit: Gino Crescoli/Pixabay

New laws will enable “paperless trade” for UK businesses selling overseas – and deliver billions of pounds savings and significant reductions in carbon emissions, according to the government.

Introduced to parliament yesterday, the Electronic Trade Documents Bill sets out that digital documentation “will be put on the same legal footing” as paper versions. The government claimed that this will impact a range of widely used trade documents that, under current legal requirements, must be provided in hard-copy format. 

This includes the bills of lading provided by transport firms, shipping and warehousing receipts, and insurance documentation.

The government stressed, however, that the legislation “will allow businesses to choose to use electronic trade documents – but does not force them to do so, allowing them to use practices and processes which work for them”.


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“International trade still relies to a large extent on a special category of trade document which is dependent on being physically possessed by a person, and transferred over to another person,” it added. “The UK is a world leader in digital trade but, currently, the law does not recognise the possibility of possessing electronic documents, which prevents industries going fully paperless. This is costly and inefficient.”

The cumulative savings enabled for traders by digitisation of documents will exceed £1bn over the next 10 years, the government estimated. It will also reduce the time needed to process contracts to just 20 seconds – compared with a period of up to 10 days required for paper systems. 

Across the logistics industry as a whole, the use of electronic documents could deliver a 12% carbon-footprint reduction of 12%, according to figures from the World Economic Forum cited by the government. 

Digital secretary Michelle Donelan said: “Our digital-first plans will make it easier for the country’s firms to buy and sell around the world – driving growth, supercharging our economy, cutting carbon and boosting productivity. We want to support businesses by cutting red tape and allowing them to sell their goods and products globally without burdensome bureaucracy. The UK was central to establishing the international trade system in the nineteenth century and we are once again leading the world to boost global trade in the twenty-first century.”

Having been put before MPs for the first time this week, the bill “will have its second reading when parliamentary time allows”, the government indicated.


Sam Trendall

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