National Audit Office Warns of Brexit Border Crisis

According to a report released by the National Audit Office there are risks to UK border operations if the UK leaves the EU without an agreement on 29 March 2019. And it says that even with a withdrawal agreement, significant challenges lie ahead to ensure the UK border is fully functioning.

Ongoing political uncertainty and delays in negotiations have hampered the effectiveness of departments’ border planning and delivery; and according to the report Government is heavily dependent on third parties, such as traders, making changes to their systems, behaviours and complying with new processes.

The report identifies that many of the changes needed to be made by government under a ‘no deal’ scenario may not be ready on time. In particular highlighting that 11 of 12 critical systems needing to be replaced or changed to manage the border are at risk of not being delivered on time and to acceptable quality.

It adds that new infrastructure to track and physically examine goods cannot be built before March 2019. Without this, the UK will not be able to fully enforce compliance regimes at the border on day one.

The NAO’s report warns that organised criminals and others are likely to be quick to exploit any perceived weaknesses or gaps in the enforcement regime. This, combined with the UK’s potential loss of access to EU law enforcement and national security tools, could create security weaknesses which the government would need to address urgently.

“Government has openly accepted the border will be sub-optimal if there is no deal with the EU on 29 March 2019. It is not clear what sub-optimal means in practice, or how long this will last. But what is clear is that businesses and individuals who are reliant on the border running smoothly will pay the price,” said Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO.

This obviously has wide-ranging implications for the transport industry. The Freight Transport Association’s Head of European Policy, Pauline Bastidon, raises concerns for the industry.

“Today’s report from the NAO confirms that the fears of the logistics industry over border readiness for Brexit in the event of no deal are justified. There are still so many elements to prepare if trade is to continue to move freely into and out of the UK, from the Government IT systems required, to contingency measures to mitigate border delays and the availability of government resources to handle new controls and procedures. Despite repeated warnings from FTA since article 50 was triggered, it is concerning to note the NAO has confirmed that it is now too late to implement new border infrastructure and that border processes on day one after Brexit will be “less than optimal”.

“The logistics sector is adept at adapting to change, but needs clarification on a range of elements, from the UK schedule of tariffs in the event of no deal to the arrangements that will be used for the safe passage of trucks. Logistics also needs more visibility on what would happen in terms of border controls beyond day 1 and beyond the ‘reduced compliance’ regime that will initially be in place. Logistics businesses are being left as the “fall guys” for the government’s lack of planning, and with most of FTA’s questions over future trading arrangements still unanswered, it will be difficult for our members to keep doing what they do best, which is adapt to new circumstances and keep Britain trading.”

The Road Haulage Association also shares National Audit Office fears that measures to prepare the UK border for Brexit won’t be ready for a no-deal scenario.

Commenting, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “Today, with only 156 days until the Brexit deadline becomes reality, we are still in the dark regarding the essential details. To maintain the supply chain between the UK, across the Irish border and mainland Europe, it is imperative that businesses can plan. This has not happened.

“The border is not ready and plans to make Kent motorways into, what are in effect glorified lorry parks are simply not enough. And Government’s claim that any increase in the number of checks will be kept to a minimum fills us with no confidence at all.

“We need clarity and we need it now. Time has run out. Such is the nature of today’s haulage industry that plans need to be made well in advance to ensure the smooth running of logistics operations – particularly those making the just-in-time deliveries on which the manufacturing industries on the other side of the Channel rely.”

Concluding, Mr Burnett said: “Yes, we welcome the NAO’s latest report but how may more reports will be issued before their contents are noted and acted upon.”