Businesses still not ready for no-deal border disruption despite government ad blitz, watchdog finds
A "large proportion" of British traders and businesses will not be ready for new customs checks under a no-deal Brexit despite a major government advertising blitz, the official public spending watchdog has found.
A new report by the National Audit Office on the state of Brexit planning at the UK border reveals that between 150,000 and 200,000 traders will need to make a customs declaration for the first time if the UK leaves the EU without a deal at the end of the month.
But it finds that many firms remain unprepared for a no-deal, even after the Government ramped up preparations following Boris Johnson's pledge to leave the EU "come what may" on 31 October.
"Despite recent efforts across government, a large proportion of traders and businesses would not be ready for new customs and regulatory controls if the UK leaves without a deal and might not be able to access the support they require," the NAO said.
It added: "The flow of goods across the border depends on businesses knowing and complying with their border obligations. Groups representing traders, hauliers and ports told us that they welcomed the Government’s efforts to provide information to help them prepare but some were concerned about the scale and complexity of the task their members faced."
The Government's own figures say that the flow of goods moving through the Channel crossings could be slashed to just 45%-65% of current capacity in the early stages of a no-deal Brexit, rising back to 100% within 12 months.
In a bid to ease the process, the Treasury announced in August that more than 88,000 businesses would be automatically handed Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) numbers, a crucial requirement under EU customs rules.
Ministers meanwhile launched a major advertising campaign under the 'Get Ready For Brexit' banner, aimed at better informing individuals and businesses about the steps they need to take for a no-deal outcome.
"However, at this late stage and with ongoing uncertainty about the prospect of no deal on 31 October, this may have limited impact," the NAO says of those steps.
And it adds: "It is impossible to know exactly what would happen at the border in the event of no-deal on October 31 2019. Departments face new challenges in monitoring and responding to any disruption that may ensue.
“This includes supporting businesses and individuals in meeting their new obligations, mitigating risks of the border becoming vulnerable to fraud, smuggling or other criminal activity, and activating civil contingency plans if necessary."
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: "Preparing the UK border for EU exit with or without a deal is extremely complex and has required a huge amount of work from many Government departments, agencies and third parties such as traders.
"Despite their efforts, significant risks remain which may have consequences for the public and businesses.
"Government will face new challenges in monitoring and responding to any disruption that may ensue following a no-deal exit, and will need to replace temporary measures with sustainable long-term solutions to ensure the border is fit for purpose."
'SMOOTH AS POSSIBLE'
A government spokesperson said: “We are doing all that is necessary to ensure that, if we do leave without a deal, the transition will be as smooth as possible for people and businesses – which the NAO recognises.
"This includes simplifying import processes, upgrading IT systems, securing additional freight capacity and putting traffic management plans in place around our busiest ports."
They added: "Many of the challenges that we may face if the UK leaves the EU without a deal require businesses and citizens to take action. That’s why we are running the largest communications campaign in recent UK history."
But Labour seized on the report to accuse the Government of failing to prepare for a no-deal.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott said: "It’s simply unacceptable that ministers who have been threatening to crash out with No Deal have left our border security so woefully underprepared.
"The recruitment of Border Force personnel could also be too little, too late given the scale of the potential disruption. As the NAO makes clear, the Government’s planned recruitment drive only just makes up for the numbers the Tories cut from 2014 onwards, despite a vastly increased workload.
"The Government talks tough on law and order, but the reality under them is cuts and chaos."