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The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is “extremely concerned” about risk and disruption at the UK border when the Brexit transition period ends.
The committee has published a report, Whitehall preparations for EU exit, highlighting the significant risk that the country will not be ready when the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020.
It said that since the UK voted to leave the EU, the PAC has published 12 reports, all highlighting concerns about the readiness of “key border systems”, and has repeatedly been assured that the systems 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 managing disruption or prioritisation of key goods are unclear,” said the committee.
“There are significant risks to the country being ready for the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, but government still only seems to be taking limited responsibility for that readiness.”
The committee said it is particularly concerned about the Check an HGV is Ready to Cross the Border service, previously called the Smart Freight System, which in September 2020 was “the system furthest from completion”.
This service will be mandatory for all drivers and hauliers using short Channel crossings, but it will not be operational until the end of December, said the PAC, adding: “It is not clear what time there will be for users to become familiar with the system.”
Another system, the Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS), is also causing concern, said the committee.
In June 2020, the government had not yet begun building the GVMS, which is intended to allow trucks to declare goods ahead of reaching the border, enabling smoother traffic flow, particularly at busier ports such as Dover.
The PAC report said the system is “still in testing and development stage, and this testing is expected to be ongoing right into December, leaving little margin” before it has to be operational.
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PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “Pretending that things you don’t want to happen are not going to happen is not a recipe for government – it is 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 are not now facing another catastrophe, at the border in four weeks’ time. But after 12 PAC reports full of warnings since the Brexit vote, the evidence suggests that, come 1 January, we face serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings that deliver a majority of our fresh food supplies.”
Hillier added: “The lack of definite next steps and inability to secure a deal adds to the challenge. A year after the ‘oven ready’ deal, we have more of a cold turkey and businesses and consumers do not know what to be prepared for.”
In November 2020, a National Audit Office report also highlighted concerns over the UK’s readiness once the transition period ends, and warned that “widespread disruption” is likely.
Industry has also raised concerns, saying there is not enough time to prepare for the end of the transition period without completed IT systems from government.
But despite all these concerns, HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) head of customs transformation told a House of Lords EU Goods Subcommittee in November 2020 that all key IT systems delivered by HMRC were “on track”, adding: “We are confident that, from an HMRC IT delivery perspective, we will meet the 31 December deadline.”