MPs savage Government over failure to prepare for port disruption after no-deal Brexit
Ministers are not yet ready to cope with the “real prospect” of major disruption at British ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a damning report has declared.
The Department of Transport still has to implement IT systems and test contingency plans to keep goods flowing if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, the Public Accounts Committee said.
It added that secrecy around departmental preparations and failure to make clear that the appropriate measures were being taken were a “potentially toxic combination”.
Theresa May has secured a deal with the EU but MPs are expected to vote it down in parliament next month - leaving open the possibility of no-deal Brexit in March next year.
It would mean Britain would suddenly fall back on World Trade Organisation rules, sparking potential chaos at the borders.
Ministers have laid out contingency plans for a turbulent EU exit, but the Public Accounts Committee said preparations by the Transport department were not advanced enough.
“There is a real prospect of major disruption at our ports,” it said in a new report released today.
The committee noted that schemes such as Project Brook - a plan to manage traffic and lorry-queuing at Dover - had been beset by “slow progress and poor communication”.
It said plans to ensure air and international rail travel can continue unhindered were at too early a stage, while businesses were struggling to prepare because they have been kept too far out of the loop.
And it lashed the department for conducting too many consultations with businesses under the secrecy of gagging orders known as non-disclosure agreements.
“With only months to go, it is extremely worrying that we are seeing these same concerns again and again with little progress being made,” the committee said.
“Even if a deal is agreed, the Department faces a challenging workload during the proposed transition period.”
Committee chair and Labour MP Meg Hillier fumed: “With so little time remaining, there is still much to do. The risks associated with no-deal are severe, yet plans for avoiding disruption around major ports in particular are worryingly under-developed.”
She added: “The secrecy around the Department’s preparations, and the shortcomings in assurance on its progress, are a potentially toxic combination.
“We accept the continued uncertainty over the final shape of Brexit adds to the complexity of the challenge. But the Department’s Brexit work is simply too important to get wrong.
But the Department for Transport hit back at the committee, saying its conclusions were “not accurate” and accusing it of ignoring evidence by government spending watchdogs.
The National Audit Office said in July that the department had “made a determined effort” to address the challenges posed by a no-deal Brexit but faced “an increasing risk of not being able to deliver” all contingency plans.
'ROTTEN AND AUTHORITARIAN'
Pro-EU campaigners lashed out at the Government - taking particular aim at accusations ministers were not being straight about the difficulties they face.
Labour MP Virendra Sharma, speaking for the Best for Britain campaign, said: "There is something extremely rotten and authoritarian about a government deliberately keeping businesses and communities in the dark about transport disruption after Brexit.
"British ports will be in disarray, clogging up vital arteries for British trade and literally putting lives at risk as medicines and food supplies are thrown into chaos. It's all a far cry from the buccaneering free trade promises made by Leave campaigners in 2016.
"This makes it a democratic necessity to hold a people's vote on Brexit. Secrecy should not be rewarded; it should be challenged in the spirit of free and open debate."