Members of parliament’s influential Public Accounts Committee have warned that Whitehall departments are making risky assumptions that the UK will not make a “hard exit” from the European Union in 2019, and are potentially jeopardising border security.
A new report from the committee says too much faith is being placed in the agreement of a transitional period with the EU, meaning border checks will remain unchanged after March 2019 and that there will be time to develop the new systems and infrastructure that new border arrangements will require.
Published just hours before the UK and EU announced that Brexit negotiations had cleared the crucial first-phase hurdle, the report says departmental claims that a “no-deal scenario” is being prepared for are undermined by an expectation that there will not be many changes “whatever the position” – potentially exposing the UK to risks on “day one” of Brexit.
The PAC’s wide-ranging report also criticises the cross-departmental Border Planning Group for having only met seven times since its creation in March, a situation MPs said they were “extremely concerned” about. Members were also concerned that no single officer or department within the group had overall responsibility for managing the UK’s borders.
The report accepted that the current negotiations brought “significant uncertainty” but said departments and the planning group – which brings together senior officials from 21 organisations – needed to up their game and be prepared for the costs of all potential options.
The PAC also said it was concerned about departments’ capacity to deliver new border programmes once they have been agreed, based on Whitehall’s record of “significant failures” such as the Home Office’s e-borders programme, and their ability to properly identify staffing needs.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said PAC members had been deeply concerned by HMRC’s back-up strategies for Brexit last month and were alarmed that “such weak contingency planning” extended across Whitehall.
“Government preparations for Brexit assume that leaving the EU will present no additional border risks from freight or passengers. It has acted – or rather, not acted – on this basis,” she said.
“This approach, in the context of what continues to be huge uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, might generously be described as cautious.
“But against the hard deadline of Brexit it is borderline reckless – an over-reliance on wishful thinking that risks immediately exposing the UK to an array of damaging scenarios.”
Hillier said that last year 300 million people and 500 million tonnes of freight had crossed UK borders, and that post-Brexit the number of official decisions required about such movements could treble in terms of people, and quadruple for freight.
“These figures should concern all in government and in our view its current approach is not fit for purpose,” she said.
The PAC called on the Border Planning Group to report back to it by March, detailing its current work streams, providing evidence that its assumptions on border risk were realistic, and confirming the existence of a lead officer with responsibility for co-ordinating the group’s work.
MPs also told the group to accelerate its detailed planning for managing the UK’s borders in the event of a no-deal scenario, and said it should report back by June 2018.
Repeating earlier concerns over funding for Brexit preparations, the PAC called on HM Treasury to review its business model “to ensure that it makes timely decisions” about releasing money to departments.
A government spokesman said departments were “fully focused” on making the UK’s exit from the European Union a success.
“We have set out proposals for an ambitious future trade and customs relationship with the EU and we will be setting out proposals for the future immigration system in due course,” he said.
"We will of course ensure we have the resources we need to continue to run an effective customs, borders and immigration system in the future.”