Smugglers could dodge up to £1bn a year in import tariffs on clothes, alcohol and food under Theresa May’s new Brexit blueprint, campaigners have claimed.
The long-awaited white paper, which fleshes out what was agreed at Chequers by the cabinet, says there will be no customs checks on goods travelling between Britain and the European Union, as part of efforts to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.
Under the plans, smugglers could potentially evade duties on imports into the UK to the tune of £1bn a year, according to analysis by the pro-EU People’s Vote campaign.
Ms May’s new Brexit blueprint has drawn criticism from both wings of her party, triggering the resignations of both Boris Johnson and David Davis from the cabinet and ramping up fears over the prospect of no deal with Brussels.
The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has also poured cold water on the idea, saying the EU “cannot and will not delegate” customs collections to another country.
One of the central planks of Ms May’s plan is a “facilitated customs arrangement”, under which tariffs charged at the border would be passed on to either the British or EU authorities, depending on the destination of imported goods.
Analysis of World Trade Organisation tariff data from 2018 shows £1.07bn of duties could be lost on products such as meat, clothes and alcohol each year, if smugglers make false claims that are not adequately checked.
Labour MP Wes Streeting, who sits on the Treasury Committee, said: “The government is already in a total mess over its fantasy customs plans, and this shows the serious consequences that the Brexit chaos has for our country.
“The UK has a proud track record in tackling organised crime. For Brexit to make it easier for people to illicitly smuggle goods across our border and not pay their way is simply unacceptable.
“Nobody in Britain voted for the return to a golden age of smuggling.”
Campaigners have voiced their fears as Mr Barnier effectively rejected the customs plan, saying that retaining control of the EU’s money, law and borders also applied to the European Union’s customs policy.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels with new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, Mr Barnier said: “The EU cannot and the EU will not delegate the application of its customs policy and rules and VAT and excises duty collection to a non-member who would not be subject to the EU’s governance structures.”
Any customs arrangement or union “must respect this principle”, he added.
The row comes amid growing fears about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, as Ms May’s Chequers proposals revealed deep divisions within Conservative ranks and put pressure on her wafer thin Commons majority.
The prime minister has urged voters not to worry about Brexit, despite a string of revelations from ministers about plans to stockpile food, blood and medicines.
She said people should take “reassurance and comfort” from news of the plans, to be implemented if the UK crashes out of the EU without an agreement in March next year.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies