19/03/2019 07:00 GMT | Updated 19/03/2019 13:23 GMT

Exclusive: Government 'Gagging Orders' Have 'Undermined Business Preparation For No-Deal Brexit'

Major trade bodies say they have been stopped from telling member companies about plans for customs and trade.

The government has been accused of hampering businesses from preparing for no-deal Brexit by making industry leaders sign gagging orders before discussing proposals for cross-border trade.

Major trade associations including the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) criticised the government’s “counterproductive” decision to tie them into non-disclosure agreements before meetings with officials.

It has meant they have not been able to share the government’s latest thinking with their member companies in sufficient time, they said, stressing that industry is now not ready for a no-deal Brexit on March 29.

An industry source said if trade bodies had been able to reveal the content of their discussions with officials and ministers at an earlier stage then business “could have been getting ready for weeks if not months” for issues including simplified customs checks in a no-deal Brexit.

In the end the government announced its plans for transitional simplified procedures for customs on February 4, which the source said was “too late”.

A letter on behalf of major trade associations on the Joint Customs Consultative Committee (JCCC), a forum established in 1969 to discuss with the government proposed changes to customs and border procedures, has been shared with HM Revenue and Customs.

It accuses the government of failing to communicate plans for a no-deal Brexit properly or in good time.

We are collectively of the opinion that members are not ready for a no-deal exit on March 29.

The letter said: “The trade members (of the JCCC) are disappointed that engagement has been subject to non-disclosure agreements which have been counterproductive.

“This has meant that trade has a fragmented understanding of HMRC’s plans for no-deal and has been unable to work collaboratively, either with HMRC or across different trade sectors, in devising effective solutions.

“We are collectively of the opinion that members are not ready for a no-deal exit on March 29.

“We do not feel that sufficient detailed information has been shared by HM government for preparation, and that the easements have not been sufficiently communicated, nor communicated in time and manner to ensure that business has sufficient time to prepare.”

The source added: “Discussion has been going on on some of these things for quite a while. With only weeks to spare, some of it is being put into the public domain, and I think a lot of this could have been done a long time ago and it’s too late to do a lot of it now.

“Government seems to be starting to point the finger at industry for failing to be ready on March 29 and I think it’s come to a head slightly that industry is pretty pissed off we’re being blamed for this when the NDAs, and these procedures they’ve hidden behind, have meant that we can’t actually communicate any of these changes that are coming and help businesses get ready.”

Theresa May plans to use this week’s European Council summit to ask for a delay to Brexit, which will either be long or short, depending on whether her withdrawal deal is approved by MPs this week.

But there is still a risk Britain could leave the with no deal - either at a later date, or if the EU refuses to extend Article 50.

HMRC has published more than 100 pages of guidance for businesses for processes and procedures at the border in a no-deal Brexit, and has written to 145,000 firms that trade with the EU on three occasions to tell them to begin getting ready. 

It has also provided £8m to help private customs intermediaries and traders increase capacity and get ready to make customs declarations.

An HMRC spokesperson said: “Leaving the EU with a deal remains the government’s top priority. For more than two years we have been preparing extensively to ensure people and businesses are prepared for a no deal scenario.

“The government is continuing with its no deal preparations to ensure the country is ready for every eventuality. Businesses and the public should ensure they are prepared for EU Exit and visit gov.uk/euexit for guidance.”

The JCCC has 31 members or member associations, including the BCC, BRC, FDF, British Ports Association, the Road Haulage Association, Royal Mail and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.