Political squabbling means UK border will not be ready for no-deal Brexit, spending watchdog warns
Uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations means Britain's border systems will not be ready if the UK crashes out of the European Union without a deal, ministers have been warned.
A scathing new report by the National Audit Office public spending watchdog reveals that 11 out of 12 "critical systems" that will need replacing or changing in time for next March are not yet up to an "acceptable quality".
It also warns that new systems needed to help track and examine goods crossing the UK border "cannot be built by March 2019" - meaning Britain will not be able to "fully enforce" new compliance regimes next year.
The NAO says Whitehall's preparation for Brexit has been hindered by long-running "political uncertainty and delays in negotiations", which have "reduced the time available" for officials to plan and put in place new border regimes.
NAO head Amyas Morse said: "Government has openly accepted the border will be sub-optimal if there is no deal with the EU on 29 March 2019. It is not clear what sub-optimal means in practice, or how long this will last. But what is clear is that businesses and individuals who are reliant on the border running smoothly will pay the price."
While the watchdog says a dedicated Border Delivery Group has sharpened government's focus, it flags up a series of "gaps and risks" in its Brexit planning, and warns there is now little time left to help business prepare for a no-deal.
The NAO warns the UK's Border Force now faces a "significant risk" over its plans to hire, security clear and train the hundreds of staff it will need to bolster the border by March next year.
Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs parliament's powerful Public Accounts Committee, said the NAO had shed light on the "slow progress" being made by the Government.
She warned: "Infrastructure at our borders will not be in place in the event of a no-deal and there is a real danger that systems will not be ready.
“With continued uncertainty around the negotiations, it is particularly concerning how little information Government has provided to businesses so they can prepare for any outcome. The Government must urgently work with businesses – time is fast running out.”
A Government spokesperson said: “Extensive work to prepare for a no deal has been well underway for almost two years and we have robust plans in place to ensure the border continues to operate from the day we leave.
“Future IT systems and infrastructure are already being built and, as they do today, HMRC will continue to apply an automated, risk-based approach to customs checks.
"This means any increase in the number of checks will be kept to a minimum.
"We will always ensure we have the necessary resources to keep the border secure, and that’s why we’re recruiting approximately 600 Border Force officers to prepare for the day we leave the EU, in addition to the 300 officers which will be deployed by the end of the year.”
The Federation of Small Businesses has already branded the report's findings "deeply troubling".
The lobby group's chairman Mike Cherry said: “With less than six months before exit day, it is dreamland stuff to think that we will be anywhere near having the infrastructure needed to track and examine goods at the border.
"The likelihood is that our small business traders will face delays for goods crossing the border, while also being hit with extra costs associated to new customs arrangements and tracking requirements."
The FSB boss called on ministers to break the "impasse" in Brexit talks and avoid a "damaging and dangerous" no-deal outcome.