By Bernard Purcell
With Brexit just five months away the British government and Whitehall are, as yet, utterly unprepared for the border chaos arising from leaving the EU without a deal, according to a leading government watchdog.
The damning National Audit Office report says most of the complex issues surrounding the UK border in the event of a no-deal Brexit – especially as relates to Northern Ireland – “remain to be resolved.”
The UK border can be crossed by sea, air or rail at 113 major entry points and there are more than 270 recognised crossing points and many other smaller entry points such as marinas and small airfields.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that will, after next March, share an actual land border with the EU.
The watchdog’s report notes that 205 million passengers travelled between the UK and the EU last year but admits the government simply doesn’t know who crossed the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Some 80 per cent of all Irish goods exported to mainland Europe pass through Welsh and English ports and may face new border controls.
NAO Comptroller and Auditor General Sir Amyas Morse said, with understatement, that the British government has “openly accepted the border will be less than optimal on day one of no deal”.
The many businesses currently enjoying its smooth operation “will pay the price”, he said.
The NAO’s 48-page report lays out in stark detail just how unprepared the UK government and its state agencies are.
HM Revenue and Customs estimate that, in the event of no deal, 145,000-250,000 traders would need to make customs declarations for the first time.
HMRC would have to process 260 million customs declarations a year, up from the current 55 million.
Although the Referendum was held two and a half years ago and Article 50 – the countdown to the 29 March departure date – triggered nineteen months ago the report says preparations have only started in the last couple of months.
The recently issued technical notices to help businesses prepare for a no-deal Brexit “may not contain sufficient detail” to justify spending on no-deal arrangements while ports and suppliers do not have the “reasonable certainty” needed to make significant investments in the necessary infrastructure, people, or systems, says the NAO.
It says the government’s cross-departmental Border Delivery Group, has been unable to address important areas of its responsibilities due to time constraints and the stalled EU-UK negotiations over Brexit.
It also says the British government’s planning assumptions for the UK’s border in Ireland “would aim to take into account different types of business, consider the feasibility of new systems and ensure the facilitation of cross-border movements”.
While the BDG only began detailed planning work with respect to Northern Ireland in July, the report says that: “There will be no infrastructure at or near the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland at any stage.”
“Government papers from July 2018 stated that it was already too late to ensure that all traders were properly prepared for ‘no deal’,” says the NAO.
Exporters have not had enough time to prepare for new Border rules and 11 of the 12 critical IT projects to replace or change Border systems look like they will not be delivered either on time or to an acceptable quality, said the NAO based on information it received from several Whitehall departments.
The necessary infrastructure identified by government departments “cannot be built before March 2019,” the report says, noting that the UK’s Border Force will not be able to deploy all the staff it plans to recruit by 29 March.
It also draws attention to the increased risk of international crime and notes that the National Crime Agency said in September any loss of access to shared EU tools and databases would mean a “more fragmented and less effective” response to crime as groups and individuals “are likely to be quick to exploit any perceived weaknesses or gaps” in the UK’s border enforcement regime.
This could “create security weaknesses which the government would need to address urgently.”
The chair of the House of Commons’s Public Accounts Committee Labour MP Meg Hillier said it was “particularly concerning how little information Government has provided to businesses so they can prepare for any outcome. “The Government must urgently work with businesses – time is fast running out,” she said.
Last week members of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet expressed shock and surprise after they were told that plans are being drawn up to charter ships to bring in emergency supplies of food and medicines if there is no deal on Brexit.
They were told the Dover-Calais route could become blocked by new customs controls on the French side.
HMRC estimates the tax and duty collected in 2017 and 2018 on border transactions to be £40 billion. It also estimates the number of customs declarations it may need to process if the UK leaves the EU with ‘no deal’ will rise from 55 million to 260 million.
Alternative options (e.g. increased use of ‘trusted trader’ schemes and inland checking facilities) are being explored.
In 2017, Britain’s trade with the EU was worth £423 billion (£164bn exports, £259bn imports) and total rest of the world trade was worth £392 billion.
Meanwhile, Whitehall officials have disclosed that the UK has rolled over only 14 out of the 236 international treaties with 168 countries to which it is a part of as a member of the EU.
Britain needs to roll over about 40 free trade agreements that the EU has with countries including Canada, Japan, South Korea and Mexico.
The 236 treaties also cover important agreements such as airlines’ take-off and landing rights at overseas airports, as well as industries such as financial services.