Government 'complacency' could lead to border chaos in case of no-deal Brexit, MPs warn

Key Commons committee also criticises minsters' use of 'gagging clauses' to silence business groups over Brexit

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 28 November 2018 01:01
What does a no-deal Brexit mean?

There is a "real prospect" of chaos at Britain's ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit because of ministers' "complacency", a damning report by a committee of MPs has warned.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is "worryingly" unprepared for a no-deal outcome, raising the prospect of "major disruption", the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.

The committee has previously raised concerns over a lack of preparation for no deal by other government departments and organisations.

Its latest report comes as Theresa May launches a two-week campaign to convince MPs to support her Brexit deal. Around 90 Conservative MPs have threatened to vote against the proposed agreement, raising the prospect of it being rejected when the Commons votes on the deal on 11 December.

That would leave just three and a half months for the government to secure agreement for an alternative plan before Britain crashes out of the EU.

The PAC said there was a “significant and growing risk” that DfT would not be ready for a no-deal Brexit by 29 March, when the UK is due to leave the bloc.

In particular, preparations for avoiding gridlock at Britain's ports are “worryingly under-developed”, it said.

The committee highlighted that DfT is yet to carry out desk-based testing of emergency plans for managing traffic and lorry queueing at Dover, known as Project Brock. It condemned “slow progress and poor communication” in relation to the work.

Concerns have previously been raised about the prospect of miles-long queues at Dover if lorries entering and leaving the UK are subjected to new checks.

The government's own assessments have also admitted that flights could be grounded and Eurostar trains halted in the event of no deal.

Despite the growing fears of a no-deal outcome, the committee accused the DfT of seeming“complacent” about the lack of progress, and raised concerns that it continues be “prone to the optimism bias” the committee said had blighted other transport projects overseen by the department.

The MPs also condemned the government’s use of non-disclosure agreements - often known as "gagging clauses" during its discussions with businesses about Brexit.

Questions from Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who sits on the PAC, revealed that the DfT has signed 28 non-disclosure agreements with external companies and organisations.

Such secrecy “hampers the ability of the business community at large to prepare” and risks “undermining transparency”, the comitteee said.

It demanded that ministers provide further progress updates before Christmas.

The report said: “There is a real risk that the Department for Transport will not be ready in the event of the UK departing the EU without a negotiated deal, and this risk is increasing as time runs out to deliver what is needed.

“There is a real prospect of major disruption at our ports. The slow progress and poor communication around work to avoid this through schemes such as Project Brock concerns us.

“The lack of detailed information provided to businesses to help them prepare and the secrecy surrounding discussions through the use of nondisclosure agreements is hampering businesses’ ability to plan."

It added: “With only months to go, it is extremely worrying that we are seeing these same concerns again and again with little progress being made.”

Warehouses set aside to stockpile food for a no-deal Brexit could be empty and booked up by Amazon

The committee also raised concerns about the government’s ability to make crucial legal changes in time for Brexit. Ministers have said 800-1000 changes to legislation will be required before 29 March, of which 66 relate to matters under the control of DfT.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “The future of road, rail, maritime and air access to Europe after Brexit remains unclear and the Department for Transport has a critical role in ensuring the UK is prepared.

“With so little time remaining, there is still much to do. The risks associated with no-deal are severe, yet plans for avoiding disruption around major ports in particular are worryingly under-developed."

She added: “The secrecy around the department’s preparations, and the shortcomings in assurance on its progress, are a potentially toxic combination.

“We accept the continued uncertainty over the final shape of Brexit adds to the complexity of the challenge. But the department’s Brexit work is simply too important to get wrong. It must be more open about what needs to be achieved, and work with business and others to deliver it.”

A DfT spokesperson: “We disagree with the committee’s conclusions which are not accurate and we are both disappointed and surprised that they have failed to reflect the evidence set out in the NAO report, which found that the department has made a determined effort in its preparations and achieved a great deal.”

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