Time has run out for the government to complete all of the preparations needed to ensure the UK border is fully operational in time for a no-deal Brexit by March next year, the National Audit Office has warned.
“The government does not have enough time to put in place all of the infrastructure, systems and people required for fully effective border operations on day one," the NAO said today, in a report that confirmed there is “no detailed overarching plan and critical path for the border across government departments”.
The report – the most comprehensive assessment of post-Brexit border preparations to date – also said all but one of 12 IT critical systems needed for the UK border are at risk of not being ready in time.
The government’s Border Delivery Group, the cross-departmental body leading on border planning, has given amber ratings to 11 IT systems, meaning they are “at risk of not delivering on time and to acceptable quality” by 29 March 2019.
Uncertainty around the outcome of Brexit negotiations has impeded the BDG's ability to fully prepare for Brexit, said the report, and as a result it has not made progress in every area of its remit.
It revealed the group did not begin detailed Brexit planning for the Northern Ireland-Ireland border until July because of the “ongoing sensitivity of negotiations”. The government has yet to decide whether and how to implement customs arrangements at the Irish border if no withdrawal agreement is reached.
The NAO said it agreed with the government’s assessment that the UK border will be “sub-optimal” in the event of a no-deal exit “and it may take some time for a fully functioning border to be put in place”.
“Individuals and businesses will feel the impact of a sub-optimal border to varying degrees,” auditors said.
Infrastructure that will not be ready in time for a no-deal Brexit includes the systems HM Revenue and Customs will need to track goods and facilities for the Border Force to examine goods, according to the report. This is partly because ports will not invest in facilities before they know the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it said.
Like other departments, the two agencies are planning to put interim arrangements such as inland checking facilities in place in the event of a no-deal departure while they work on getting complete systems up and running.
How effective these and other “coping responses” will be remains to be seen, the report said.
There could also be a staffing shortfall if no deal is reached, it warned. The Border Force has said there is a “significant risk” it will not have all of the 581 additional border operations staff it has said it would need in place by March 2019.
The report added that many departments’ Brexit work streams are interdependent, which means one delayed programme could have a “multiplication effect” on others.
If the UK and EU do reach a withdrawal agreement, the scale of the work needed to prepare the border for Brexit will be “nowhere near that required” for no deal, the report said.
“However, introducing new border arrangements as part of a ‘deal’ could still involve a large amount of work leading up to and beyond the end of the implementation period in December 2020,” it added.