Departments’ lack of preparedness for a “no-deal” Brexit risks paving the way for a spike in cross-border crime and jeopardising a significant chunk of the nation’s food imports, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee has warned.
Meg Hillier has written to HM Revenue & Customs perm sec Jon Thompson, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs perm sec Clare Moriarty and members of the cross-government Borders Delivery Group setting her committees fears and demanding answers.
In her letter to Thompson, Hillier said it was now clear that the time to implement an optimal “no deal” system at the UK’s ports in time for 29 March next year had “gone”.
She said that based on evidence given to the PAC in recent months, the nation would have increased vulnerability to illicit activity for months.
“HMRC told us that while it might take a few months to address most of the issues relating to ‘no deal’, implementing an inventory-linking system would take up to three years,” she said.
“We are concerned that organised criminals and others will exploit such gaps in the UK’s knowledge and systems.”
She added: “We share the Home Affairs Select Committee's concerns [published in a separate report today] about the Home Office's ability to plan properly without having undertaken an assessment of the security downgrade that might result from the potential loss of EU law enforcement tools such as SIS II.”
Hillier said the PAC was also “not convinced” that the government knew in detail what infrastructure and resources would be required at the border – or when it would be required – for it to “function optimally” after Brexit.
Another concern she flagged was the level of food-security contingency planning being undertaken in recognition of the importance of food imports to the UK. She said 10% of the nation’s food imports travelled through the Dover Straits route, considered “at risk of disruption” in a no-deal scenario.
Hillier said the PAC was aware that the Department for Transport was looking at the potential to re-route traffic, but found it “worrying” that contingency arrangements had not yet been resolved and ministers were still to decide whether to intervene – and which goods should be prioritised.
“This is not good enough, as ensuring shops do not run out of food should surely be one of the highest priority areas for government’s planning,” she said.
Elsewhere, Hillier’s letter said the PAC was “extremely disappointed” that the government had not done more to help businesses prepare for a no-deal Brexit and suggested departments were taking legal measures to actively prevent the dissemination of information from business to business.
“We remain concerned about the government’s use of non-disclosure agreements to prevent businesses and stakeholders sharing details of discussions they have held with departments, hampering wider discussions on preparations,” she said.
The letter also questioned whether the government has given sufficient consideration to the impact of Brexit on ports deemed “less critical”, such as the Port of Tyne at North Shields, or on the export of livestock and animal products, and on the chemical industry.
Hillier urged all letter recipients – which included HMRC director for border co-ordination Karen Wheeler and Border Force director general Paul Lincoln in addition to Thompson and Moriarty – to update the PAC on its key areas of concern before parliament’s Christmas recess.
An HMRC spokesperson said the government had made it consistently clear that there would be no compromise on security but that keeping goods flowing across the border was of vital importance in the event of a no-deal scenario.
“Extensive work to prepare for a no-deal scenario has been under way for around two years and plans are in place to ensure there will be a functioning border from the day we leave,” they said.
“Whilst that border will be functional, it is one that will be improved in the longer term.”
HMRC said it was “developing specific requirements around the physical infrastructure needed in each of the exit scenarios”.