'Serious disruption and delay' feared at Channel next month

There is a “risk of serious disruption and delay” at channel crossings after the Brexit transition period ends at the end of the month, MPs said.

In a scathing assessment of how ministers had planned this momentous event, the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) questioned the level of preparation for the UK’s escape from Brussels.

The PAC said the government was taking “limited responsibility” for national readiness with just over four weeks to meet the deadline.

The financial watchdog expressed dismay at the state of affairs after saying it released 12 reports on the need for Brexit preparedness since the EU referendum four and a half years ago.

The cross-party PAC believes that the necessary systems are not fully in place, whether there is a last-minute trade deal with Brussels or not.

The committee stated: “We remain extremely concerned about the risk of serious disruption and delay in the short Channel Crossings.”

The PAC added: “There are still significant risks to the country poised for the end of the transition period on December 31, 2020, but the government still appears to take limited responsibility for that readiness.

“Industry associations have said the government has not provided essential information that businesses need to prepare, such as detailed guidelines for applying for simplified customs procedures.”

MPs noted that the short channel crossings are the delivery point for a majority of the country’s fresh food supplies.

While talks to try to negotiate a last-minute trade deal between the UK and the EU continue, PAC Chairman Meg Hillier expressed serious concern about the situation.

Ms. Hillier, Labor MP, mocked Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise in the latest general election that he had a “oven-ready” Brexit deal, saying it had become more “cold turkey”.

Ms. Hillier said she hoped the country would not now “face another catastrophe at the border in four weeks’ time” in the wake of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The committee said: “In 12 reports on preparations for leaving the EU since the vote in 2016, the PAC has repeatedly expressed concern about the readiness of key border systems and assured that they are on track or that delays are being managed.

“And yet, with a few weeks to go, border systems remain in development and plans for controlling disruption or prioritizing important goods are unclear.”

The PAC added: “The impact of the summer 2019 ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign – which cost £ 46 million before being discontinued when an extension was agreed – is unclear.

“And the government is still not doing enough to ensure that businesses and citizens are ready for the end of the transition period.”

The report stated that a Whitehall survey found that 36% of SMEs expected the transition period to be extended and the Cabinet Office admitted that it did not know how many of the remaining 64% would be ready for the change.

The study said, “The government should maximize any remaining opportunities to get businesses and individuals into employment in the time remaining until January 2021.”

The PAC said the situation comes after £ 4.4 billion was spent preparing for the EU’s withdrawal in an operation involving 22,000 officials and “many more” paid consultants.

Ms. Hillier said, “Pretending that things you don’t want to happen won’t happen isn’t a recipe for government, it’s a recipe for disaster.

“We are paying for that approach in the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and can only hope that we don’t face another catastrophe at the border now in four weeks.

“But after 12 PAC reports full of warnings since the Brexit vote, the evidence suggests that from January 1 we will be facing severe disruption and delay in the short channel crossings that supply a majority of our fresh food supplies.

“The lack of definitive next steps and the inability to close a deal adds to the challenge.

“A year after the oven-ready deal, we are more cold turkey and businesses and consumers don’t know what to prepare for.”

The report stated that preparations for Brexit and the Covid-19 response had “exposed critical gaps in the administration’s approach to planning, especially for unexpected events or undesirable outcomes”.

The PAC was very critical of ministers specifically limiting the amount of contingency plans the civil service could implement for a Brexit scenario ahead of the June 2016 referendum.

The study also found that the government “spends too much on advisers to do work that can be better done by civil servants, and does not use or develop internal skills and experience, causing further and ongoing waste of tax money.”

The report called on the Cabinet Office to conduct a formal evaluation covering the entire preparation period.

The PAC study added, “The government still does not have a good grasp of how much tax money is spent on government priorities. Including both EU Exit and the Covid-19 response.”