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Analysis

Brexit confusion means a smugglers’ charter at UK borders

by Quentin Peel | 24.10.2018

The government departments responsible for controlling and policing the country’s external borders after Brexit are seriously ill-prepared for the job. That is the only conclusion one can reasonably draw from reading between the lines of the latest report from the National Audit Office, the parliamentary watchdog responsible for monitoring public sector performance.

Of the 12 key border information systems supposed to be put in place for Brexit, no fewer than 11 are “at risk of not being delivered on time and to acceptable quality” by March 29, 2019, according to the latest NAO report. They range from a new and long-planned computerised customs declaration system to supervising imports of animals and animal products, monitoring roll-on, roll-off freight traffic, and providing electronic binding tariff information.

The NAO has long been a still small voice of reason in the frantic psychodrama of Brexit. It speaks in measured civil service jargon. But its words of warning suggest that not only in the case of no deal being agreed in the negotiations – the worst possible scenario – but also if there is a deal, the movement of goods and people across UK frontiers will be massively disrupted. The government has already admitted that “border operations will be less than optimal on day one” of any no deal scenario. But “the government has not defined what ‘less than optimal’ may mean”, the report says drily. It could include “delays for goods crossing the border, increased opportunity for tax and regulatory non-compliance and less information to inform checks on people crossing the border.”

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In other words, Brexit will be a smugglers’ charter and an invitation to fiscal and regulatory cheating, because it will take years to hire, train and equip the necessary personnel to enforce customs and excise regulations, collect taxes and tariffs, enforce immigration legislation and provide veterinary checks. So much for “bringing back control”.

Yet the truth is that the agencies involved have been given an impossible task. Uncertainty about the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations “has made it difficult to make clear planning assumptions”. Delays in the negotiations have reduced the time available to plan and implement whatever new border regimes may be required. The delays in turn have made it impossible for government departments to communicate with the traders, haulage companies and others who will have to implement the regulations from any new deal.

Worse, the departments have been so distracted by having to plan for “no deal”, or for fanciful compromises such as the “facilitated customs arrangement” proposed by UK negotiators, that they cannot plan for an end deal whose outlines are still completely unclear. HMRC – revenue and customs – will need systems to track goods, and the Border Force will need space and facilities to physically examine people and goods. But they cannot start on building the infrastructure because ports and airports need certainty on future arrangements before they can invest in the bricks and mortar.

The entire picture gives the lie to any suggestion that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The former means chaos. The latter suggests lasting disruption. That is all the more reason why a People’s Vote is needed to decide if such a chaotic outcome is the right way to resolve future relations between the UK and EU.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe