26 October 2018

Many of those supporting Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum argued the case for “taking back control of our borders”: unfortunately, as a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) makes clear, this will come at a price.

“The UK border: preparedness for EU exit”, which can be found at https://bit.ly/2PhGfWh, focuses on the progress the Government has made with its operational planning and delivery of the changes to border operations which will be required by the UK’s exit from the EU.

Highlighting the possible problems, the NAO notes that £423 billion of trade crosses UK borders every year, much of that with the EU or onto other destinations via the rest of Europe. In addition, over 200 million people also cross the border.

If a withdrawal agreement is reached with the EU later this year, industry and government departments will have until December 2020 to design and implement any new arrangements.

This could involve significant work, the NAO warns, such as the implementation of new customs arrangements, and the time available to meet these challenges is not long given the complex programmes to be set up.

What if there’s no deal?

The real problems arise in the event of no deal being agreed.

The Government has recognised that the border will be “less than optimal” if it has to cope with new arrangements on 30 March 2019 and the NAO report makes clear that this is something of an under-statement.

For example, if the UK leaves the EU with no deal, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has estimated that it will have to deal with 260 million customs declarations, as against current volumes of 55 million.

And, as the NAO points out, 11 out of 12 critical IT systems at the border have been assessed, by the Border Delivery Group, as being at risk of not delivering on time and to acceptable quality by 29 March 2019.

The most complex issues relating to the movement of goods at the border, such as arrangements to apply at the Northern Ireland and Ireland border and a system that will allow roll-on roll-off ferry ports and Eurotunnel to operate smoothly, still need to be resolved.

Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, the NAO concludes: “Businesses do not have enough time to make the changes that will be needed if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.”