Brexit: ‘Serious risk of disruption and delay’ at Channel due to lack of readiness

2 December 2020, 00:01 | Updated: 2 December 2020, 13:57

Freight lorries on the M20 in Kent (file image)
Freight lorries on the M20 in Kent (file image). Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

There is a "risk of serious disruption and delay" to Channel crossings after the Brexit transition period expires at the end of the month, MPs have warned.

The influential Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has given a scathing assessment of the way ministers have planned for the momentous event.

It questioned the UK's level of preparedness, saying the Government was "taking limited responsibility" for national readiness with just over four weeks to go to the deadline.

The financial watchdog says it has issued 12 reports on the need for Brexit readiness since the EU referendum four and a half years ago.

READ MORE: 'UK could face no Brexit trade deal this year as deadline looms,' admits Eustice

It believes the necessary systems are not fully in place whether there is a last minute trade deal with Brussels or not.

The cross-party PAC stated: "We remain extremely concerned about the risk of serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings."

It added: "There are still significant risks to the country being ready for the end of the transition period on December 31 2020, but Government still only seems to be taking limited responsibility for that readiness.

"Industry bodies have said that Government has not provided key information needed by businesses to prepare, such as detailed guidance on how to apply for simplified customs procedures."

MPs noted the short Channel crossings are the delivery point for a majority of the country's fresh food supplies.

With talks to try and hammer out a last minute trade agreement between the UK and EU continuing, PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier expressed severe concerns about the situation.

Ms Hillier mocked Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pledge at the last general election that he had an "oven-ready" Brexit deal, saying it had become more of a "cold turkey".

The Labour MP said she hoped the country was not now "facing another catastrophe at the border in four weeks' time" in the wake of the Government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

The committee said: "The PAC has repeatedly raised concerns about the readiness of key border systems and been assured that they are on track or that delays are being managed.

"And yet, with a few weeks to go, border systems remain in development and plans for managing disruption or prioritisation of key goods are unclear."

The PAC added the impact of 'Get ready for Brexit' campaign, which cost £46 million in the summer of 2019 before being was abandoned when an extension was agreed, is "unclear".

"And the Government is still not doing enough to ensure businesses and citizens are ready for the end of the transition period," it said.

The report stated a Whitehall survey found 36 per cent of small and medium sized firms expected the transition period to be extended and the Cabinet Office admitted it had no knowledge of how many of the remaining 64 per cent will be ready for the change.

The situation comes with £4.4 billion already spent on preparing for EU withdrawal in an operation involving 22,000 civil servants and "many more" paid consultants, the PAC said.

Ms Hillier added: "Pretending that things you don't want to happen are not going to happen is not a recipe for government, it is a recipe for disaster.

"We're paying for that approach in the UK's response to the Covid-19 pandemic and can only hope that we are not now facing another catastrophe at the border in four weeks' time.

"But... the evidence suggests that come January 1 we face serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings that deliver a majority of our fresh food supplies.

"The lack of definite next steps and inability to secure a deal adds to the challenge."

The report stated Brexit preparations and the Covid-19 response had exposed "critical gaps in the civil service's approach to planning", with the PAC highly critical of ministers specifically limiting the amount of contingency planning the civil service could carry out for a Brexit scenario ahead of the June 2016 referendum.

It also found the Government was spending too much taxpayers money on consultants "to undertake work that could be better done by civil servants".

The study called for the Cabinet Office to conduct a formal review covering the whole period of preparations.

It added: "Government still does not have a good grip on how much taxpayers' money is being spent on cross-government priorities. The Treasury has acknowledged the need for more timely, transparent financial information on cross-government areas of work, including both EU exit and the Covid-19 response."