The UK will not be ready for changes to the customs system in time for the end of the Brexit transition period, a report presented to Cabinet ministers has warned.
The government has accepted there will be a 21-month transition period lasting from 29 March 2019 until December 2020.
Brexit secretary David Davis travels to Brussels today for another round of talks on the transition period with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier.
But the Sunday Times reports that ministers were briefed on Tuesday that there would not be time for the UK to implement new systems at the border.
A Cabinet source told the paper there were issues with “borders and databases, which won't be ready in time”.
Another source confirmed: “The paper was on the end date for the implementation period. It was only circulated to ministers at the meeting with 15 minutes’ reading time. It was the EU that has offered December 31, 2020. Nothing else is negotiable. But we won’t be ready on everything by then, notably customs.”
MPs on the Brexit select committee have called for the implementation period to be extended to give the government more negotiating room – although Brexiteer MPs wrote a separate conclusion dissenting from their colleagues.
In a report released on Sunday, the committee said it was “difficult to see how a Brexit deal covering everything can be negotiated in the time that remains”.
As well as calling for the government to consider whether a limited extension to the Article 50 period is needed, the committee said citizens’ rights and the Northern Ireland border are part of a wide range of separation issues that will dominate the months of negotiation between now and October – the deadline set by the UK and the EU for an agreement that would then need to be approved by national parliaments.
Committee chair Hilary Benn highlighted that Davis has said he can "live with" a transition period of under two years if it helps to secure an early deal. But even this time could prove to be too short to conclude a comprehensive agreement, Benn said.
“We are now at a critical stage in the negotiations, with just seven months left to reach agreement on a whole host of highly complex issues. While the committee welcomes the progress that has been made in some areas, the government faces a huge task when the Phase 2 talks actually begin.
“The government must now come forward with credible, detailed proposals as to how it can operate a ‘frictionless border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because at the moment, the Committee is not persuaded that this can be done at the same time as the UK is leaving the single market and the customs union. We know of no international border, other than the internal borders of the EU, that operates without checks and physical infrastructure. This is deeply concerning.”