Whitehall departments have “prioritised” no-deal scenario planning on borders arrangements for the UK’s departure from the European Union and are “actively” preparing for such an outcome, new Treasury documents insist.
The suggestions come in formal minutes of the department's response to a Public Accounts Committee report in December last year, which prompted committee chair Meg Hillier to describe departments’ reliance on the likelihood of a negotiated departure from the EU as “borderline reckless”.
Just-published minutes say government policy is clear about the desirability of seeking transitional arrangements to take effect from March 2019, when the two-year Article 50 period for Brexit ends, and that departments are taking a “pragmatic approach” towards ensuring the flow of traffic at borders.
But the minutes insist contingency planning is also afoot, saying: “Departments have prioritised ‘no deal’ scenario planning because it would require significant changes and the most planning, and would be needed for March 2019.”
“Departments have a clear understanding of a ‘no deal’ scenario and have plans for every commodity and activity which needs to cross the border under this scenario.”
The Treasury said the work was being undertaken by both individual departments with customs and borders responsibilities, and by the cross-departmental Border Planning Group – which was criticised in December by the PAC for only having met seven times since its creation earlier in the year.
Responding to a request from MPs for more clarity over the work of the Border Planning Group, and for an individual to be “put in charge” and given lead responsibility for co-ordinating its work, the Treasury suggested it had made a twin appointment.
It said: “Two permanent secretaries have been appointed to lead the work of the Border Planning Group which focuses on co-ordinating the operational aspects of departmental plans for dealing with border impacts of EU exit, with Department for Exiting the European Union coordinating policy to inform negotiations.”
It did not identify the permanent secretaries referred to, but added: “The government is keeping under review how roles could be clarified.”
The Treasury said departments, their agencies and arm’s length bodies, and local authorities were involved in the planning work, with a “location by location, port by port” approach being taken.
Last month, MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee warned that the Home Office’s current recruitment plans were insufficient to deal with current levels of understaffing among borders officials at the nations ports and airports, “never mind cope with the substantial additional Brexit workload”.
They also criticised ministers for delays to the white paper on the nation’s post-Brexit immigration system, which committee chair Yvette Cooper described as “irresponsible”.