The UK is not fully prepared to secure its borders in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.
The government faces a race against time to replace critical IT systems, recruit sufficient Border Force staff and build new infrastructure to track goods, according to a report from the spending watchdog.
Organised criminals will be quick to exploit weaknesses or gaps in border enforcement, the NAO says. Coupled with the potential loss of cross-border EU law enforcement cooperation and tools, its report warns a no-deal Brexit could create new risks and undermine national security.
Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, 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.” The report reveals that 11 of 12 critical systems that need to be replaced or changed to manage the border are at risk of not being delivered on time and to acceptable quality.
Infrastructure needed to track and physically examine goods cannot be built before March 2019 when the UK leaves the EU, the NAO has found, meaning the UK will not be able to enforce its customs regime and safety regulations at the border on day one.
A Border Force target of deploying 581 staff by Brexit day is at “significant risk” of being missed because of the length of time it takes to recruit and train officers.
Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “The NAO’s latest work on the UK border shows the slow progress made on preparations.
“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.”
It emerged earlier this month that a major motorway in Kent would be closed overnight on a regular basis in the run up to Christmas to prepare it for use as a lorry park in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The sudden closures affecting the M26 sparked anger from local MP Tom Tugendhat, who said he had not been informed of the plan to accommodate cross-Channel goods traffic.
Meanwhile, the government launched a procurement exercise worth tens of millions of pounds to secure extra storage capacity for a stockpile of medicines in the event of a no deal Brexit.
It came as the Health Committee was told there are no storage facilities at British ports for medecines that need to be chilled.