Brexit: UK borders still not ready for leaving single market at end of year, MPs told

Government hasn’t given business what it needs to prepare as deadline looms

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 10 June 2020 12:03
Brexit: UK borders still not ready for leaving single market at end of year, MPs told

British borders are not ready for leaving the single market at the end of the year, with a lack of information and a shortage of customs officers making it impossible to prepare, MPs have been told.

The government is well short of recruiting the 50,000 customs officers customs authorities say are needed, with trade experts warning that restrictions on space at some ports is also causing problems.

“We’re not ready, and we’re not entirely sure what we need to be ready for,” Dr Anna Jerzewska of the UK Trade Policy Observatory told the Commons EU committee.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen at the border on 1 January ... we don’t know how this border will function.”

Dr Jerzewska said information provided by the government so far such as what tariffs would be charged on goods was welcome, but that the business community was waiting for ministers to explain what the UK’s border operating model would be before it could take concrete steps.

“In terms of border readiness, one of the issues here is the fact there’s a lot of different actors that need to be ready: HMRC, Border Force, companies, as well as customs brokers, freight operators and port authorities,” she said.

“We also have certain places where this readiness will cause more of an issue than in other ports: we have our roll-on-roll-off ports where the readiness aspect is much more complicated than in other types of port because of time constraints and lack of space.”

Sam Lowe, a senior fellow and trade expert at the Centre for European Reform told the same hearing of the Commons EU future relationship committee that many things needed to be sorted irrespective of whether the government managed to get a deal with the EU or not.

“From a preparedness point of view, due to the nature of the future relationship that is on the table, most of these questions apply whether there is a free trade agreement or not,” he said.

“Lots of the information that’s currently missing needs to be provided regardless: so I would echo Anna’s call that it would be very useful to see the business preparedness model soon.”

Under the government’s plans, customs and regulatory checks on trade will be introduced on goods travelling between the EU and UK, potentially disrupting supply chains.

The government separately wants these goods to be tariff and quota free, and is trying to negotiate a trade deal to achieve this – but the checks and extra customs capacity will be needed no matter what happens.

Dr Jerzewska highlighted a shortfall in the number of customs officers compared to the number planned by the government and suggested a training was well behind an estimated requirement set by the sector.

Asked whether there would be enough, she said: “The simple answer here is no. Even before Brexit, the referendum, there’s been a short supply of these people. Customs has always been one of these skills that has been lacking in the UK ... we’ve never actually had enough people of customs knowledge for all the conditions and requirements that we have.

“I think HMRC customs academy, I think the number of around 1,000 people. When you look at other countries that’s actually a good number, a realistic number of people you can train.

“The expectation to train 50,000 people, first of all, we don’t have them because we don’t have 50,000 people interested in a career in customs, strangely enough. She added that this target “wasn’t a very realistic expectation”.

Business groups warned last week that the UK would be heading for food shortages in the event of a no-deal exit from the single market. The British Retail Consortium warned that “the clock is ticking really loudly” and said a “disorderly” Brexit would mean “a bigger challenge than the food supply chain faced with Covid”.

Speaking after the committee hearing, UK Chamber of Shipping chief executive Bob Sanguinetti said: “We believe it is increasingly difficult to see how any new infrastructure will be ready in time given we do not yet know what type of checks will be required.

“There is very little space available in existing ports for new facilities, and complex IT reporting arrangements have to be agreed and introduced. These are the two major challenges.

“These were huge projects for the UK government before the coronavirus pandemic and day by day it is increasingly difficult to see how the original timelines can be achieved. We are not calling for an extension to the transition period but we urgently need clarity about our future border requirements.”

The deadline to ask for more time to negotiate a deal is the end of this month, with an extension of up to two years on the table. But Boris Johnson has said he will not ask for extra time.

Asked why the government would not extend on Tuesday, cabinet office minister Penny Mordaunt told the Commons that the government wanted to get a deal as soon as possible to give businesses more time to prepare.

There has been effectively no progress in Brexit trade talks since they kicked off at the start of the year, with both sides stuck on the issues of fishing, a level playing field for regulations, the governance of any deal, and judicial and policing cooperation. The trade experts at the EU committee on Wednesday were however relatively upbeat about the prospect of a deal because of the importance of securing one to both economies.

The UK left the EU at the end of January this year but is currently in a transition period during which its economic arrangements stay the same. This period is due to end on 31 December this year.

An HMRC spokesperson said: "The UK already has a well established industry of customs intermediaries who serve British businesses trading outside the EU, and we’ve injected £34m into growing the intermediary sector to support trade after the end of the transition period."

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