The government’s failure to prepare the UK for a no-deal Brexit could leave the country’s borders vulnerable to criminal gangs, a damning report has warned.
An assessment published by the National Audit Office (NAO) on Tuesday echoed the government’s own evaluation that the state of the border would be “less than optimal” in the case of the UK crashing out of the EU without an agreement in place, warning that organised criminals would be “quick to exploit any perceived weaknesses”.
“This, combined with the UK’s potential loss of access to EU security, law enforcement and criminal justice tools, could create security weaknesses which the government would need to address urgently,” the report into Brexit preparedness read.
The NAO found that, while government departments responsible for the border at ports and airports were more prepared for a no-deal scenario than one in which the UK comes to an agreement with the EU, many of the changes needed to deal with World Trade Organisation rules may not be ready in time.
Branding the plans a “high delivery risk”, the public spending watchdog said that 11 out of the 12 major projects needed to change key border systems might not be delivered, while the Border Force may not have time to carry out plans to recruit and train 581 additional staff to deal with the effects of Brexit.
The report also warned that the infrastructure needed by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to track goods cannot be built before March 2019, meaning the department “may not be able to fully enforce compliance regimes at the border on day one”.
Head of the NAO Amyas Morse said: “The 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,” he continued. “But what is clear is that businesses and individuals who are reliant on the border running smoothly will pay the price.”
According to the NAO, businesses do not have enough time to make the changes that will be needed if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, with HMRC estimating that as many as 250,000 traders would have to make customs declarations for the first time.
Meg Hillier, chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, agreed there was a “real danger” border systems will not be ready for Brexit in case of no deal.
“With continued uncertainty around negotiations, it is particularly concerning how little information government has provided to businesses so they can prepare for any outcome,” the MP said.
“The government must urgently work with businesses – time is fast running out.”
A government spokesperson said “extensive work” to prepare for no deal had been ongoing for almost two years, adding that it has “robust plans in place to ensure the border continues to operate from the day we leave”.
“Future IT systems and infrastructure are already being built and, as they do today, HMRC will continue to apply an automated, risk-based approach to customs checks,” they continued, saying that this will keep any increase in checks “to a minimum”.
“We will always ensure we have the necessary resources to keep the border secure, and that’s why we’re recruiting approximately 600 Border Force officers to prepare for the day we leave the EU, in addition to the 300 officers which will be deployed by the end of the year.”