Border delays will happen even in 'best-case' no-deal, ex-HMRC Brexit official warns

Warning comes as freight association head says there has been “too little debate" about longer-term post-Brexit border plans

Karen Wheeler, who led government's Border Delivery Group until June. Photo: Parliament TV

The government has predicted border delays even in its “reasonable best case” assessment of what could happen after a no-deal Brexit, according to the former official in charge of overseeing border contingency planning.

Karen Wheeler, who stepped down as director general for border coordination at HM Revenue and Customs in June, told a committee of MPs the government had estimated that after a no-deal Brexit the “flow rate” of trucks exporting goods to the EU via Calais could drop to 40-60%. She said assessment, part of the government’s Operation Yellowhammer contingency planning, represented the “reasonable worst case scenario” – an outcome that is unlikely but “stands a significant chance of happening”.

In the reasonable best case scenario, the flow rate could be as high as 70-80% of current levels, she said. “But even in those circumstances, which seem just as unlikely as a reasonable worst case, you would still get delays,” she said.


She said the government had estimated that as many as 20% of the 10,000 trucks a day that go through the port of Dover may not have the right documents to pass customs checks that will be introduced in France after a no-deal Brexit.

Wheeler was giving evidence to the Exiting the EU Select Committee, which is examining the impact of a no-deal Brexit – which cabinet minister Michael Gove has said government is treating as the assumed outcome of Brexit talks – on the border.

Also appearing giving evidence were James Hookham, deputy chief executive of the Freight Transport Association, and Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, who both said their members were concerned they would be damaged by a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

Hookham said he could not “quantify that reliably” how many of the FTA’s members would have the correct paperwork in time to export goods to France by 1 November.

He said the FTA did not expect major delays to EU imports because the government has said it will not carry out full customs checks at the border immediately after Brexit. But he said exports remained a “great unknown” and depended on the extent to which border officials in France carry out full checks.

The business leaders said they faced a "huge" task in communicating to their members what they needed to do to prepare for Brexit. Asked whether he felt extra funds provided by the Treasury had helped departments to speed up their no-deal preparations, Hookham said: "While that funding is helpful, there are still many, many issues that the government needs to resolve and sign off about the actual border procedures because in communicating what businesses need to do, we need to be in possession of the complete picture.

"At the moment, there are several really important missing parts of the overall picture that we just need to get some clarity on."

Opie said the end of October is “probably the worst time” in the year for retailers to face a no-deal Brexit, as it follows Britain's growing season and is therefore “pretty close to peak imports” of fresh produce, while other retailers are ramping up imports to prepare for Christmas. This also puts pressure on infrastructure and warehousing space, he said.

He said businesses were concerned about their ability to cope not only with customs requirements, but also infrastructure needed to comply with EU regulations on imports. For example, food imports must be carried on heat-treated pallets, supplies of which are limited, Opie said.

Hookham agreed this would be a “very, very significant additional burden” for British businesses. He also said businesses were concerned about other regulatory changes such as the requirement for hauliers to obtain new driving permits to drive on EU roads.

And there are further concerns about the flow of goods between the Republic of Ireland and the UK – not just across the Irish border, but from Wales to Ireland, Opie said. Unlike the French government, Ireland’s government has said it will administer all of the new customs checks in Dublin from the first day after Brexit, including the requirement for heat-treated pallets.

He said retail rules into EU are not set up to facilitate just in time delivery, which would make it “nigh on impossible” for some British retailers to send the same level of supplies to shops in the Ireland as they do now for goods including pre-prepared meals.

The business leaders also raised concerns about how imports could be affected once the government did implement its full regime of customs checks.

“I think there’s been too little debate around the three, six, nine-month period [after Brexit],” Opie said. “For us, for example, we will [initially] have a temporary tariff on food, but how long will that temporary tarriff last?”

He added: “From the consumer perspective, there’s so much uncertainty with not having a robust deal with our biggest trading partner,” noting that 80% of food imports in British supermarkets, and 25% of everything they sell, comes from other EU countries.

Asked about the government’s plans for import checks, Wheeler rejected the suggestion that a delay to implementing full customs checks the day after Brexit would amount to a “smugglers’ charter”, but said: “Because the processes wouldn’t be 100% initially, clearly there would be some potential issues of people getting away with not getting customs documentation.”

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