The Risk of Brexit Border Chaos
The Government has indicated that the UK will leave the EU customs union after Brexit. The Prime Minister has stated that she still wants the UK "to have a customs agreement with the EU", although what this means in practice is anyone's guess.
As a recent member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, the practical challenge involved in changing customs and borders arrangements are significant, and potentially extremely costly, as imports and exports are worth billions of pounds and involve a number of businesses.
Thus, customs arrangements are potentially a cliff edge issue, where in the absence of an agreement which ensures continuity or transitional arrangements, the introduction of border checks between the UK and EU will still need to happen on the first day of Brexit, as well as new documentary excise and duty requirements.
If new customs checks are required, additional systems will be needed at the channel ports in France and Belgium, despite the fact that the government has no control over the timetable for change and new investment.
The issue of illegal immigration poses the potential risk of delays at French and Belgian ports. This was apparent during the French ferry operators’ strike in 2015 where people illegally boarded lorries waiting to cross to the UK. Many migrants lost their lives. It is clear that any expansion of customs and borders capacity will be costly and take many years to implement.
When voting for Brexit how many of us considered the impact of delays and blockages at ports or even considered the carefully constructed supply chains that deliver perishable goods on time. Any halt to the supply chain would mean serious disruption to our economy. An example of this is Agri food.
The Institute for Government report highlights that U.K. rules on meat imports from non-EU countries currently result in 20-30% of shipments being checked. Agri food products generally are not taken to inland inspection posts because of the risk of disease so must be checked at ports. Hence, any improvements to ports and transport infrastructure needs to happen now.
As an MP, the emerging detail of what Brexit means in reality is not only shocking but deeply disappointing. It is clear that information is not reaching the wider public for them to grasp the level of complexity and unrealistic timescales to prepare for the impending chaos.
The National Audit Office has raised serious concerns that UK Border Force may struggle to cope with the demands of greatly increased checks required for both people and goods entering the UK after Brexit. These risks will include fewer seizures of illicit and illegal goods at the border, despite the Home Office pledge that an extra 300 border staff will be in place by March 2019.
The plan for such a modest increase in UK Border Force staff is concerning. If new customs arrangements require a substantial increase in customs capacity which can't be delivered in time, there is a risk of border staff being diverted from crucial security functions, including preventing smuggling, seizing of dangerous goods, and immigration processes. We cannot allow any diminution of UK border security.
Planning for post Brexit customs arrangements currently lacks focus, urgency and leadership. The fact that multiple government departments and agencies are involved in delivering customs means that there must be a joined-up approach from the government. There needs to be robust co- ordination with the private sector otherwise we run a very real risk of seeing Brexit border chaos.