Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Brexit Threatens ‘Major Border Disruptions,' U.K. Lawmakers Say

  • Home Affairs Committee calls customs plans ‘unconvincing’
  • Cross-party panel warns of tailbacks in Kent, Northern Ireland

The U.K. faces the prospect of “major border disruptions” after Brexit if the government doesn’t prepare for all eventualities, a panel of lawmakers warned in the second report this week to criticize Prime Minister Theresa May’s preparations.

The government so far has undertaken “insufficient contingency planning” to prepare the Border Force, which carries out immigration and customs controls, for failure to reach a deal with the European Union’s other 27 members, the cross-party Home Affairs Committee said on Thursday. It called a Home Office plan to hire an extra 300 border staff by March 2019 “completely unconvincing, particularly given the current uncertainty” over the Brexit talks.

The report highlights just one of many thorny issues May is trying to solve as the clock ticks down to Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU in March 2019. Her program for government is dominated by Brexit-related legislation, ranging from nuclear safeguards to immigration and trade. She also needs to devise a plan for Northern Ireland, which will have Britain’s only land border with the EU after Brexit.

“As things stand, the government is running the risk of celebrating their first day of Brexit with the sight of queues of lorries stretching for miles in Kent and gridlock on the roads of Northern Ireland,” Home Affairs Committee Chairwoman Yvette Cooper said in a statement. That “would be incredibly damaging to the U.K. economy and completely unacceptable to the country.”

‘Stack on Steroids’

Cooper warned that failure to prepare customs adequately for all eventualities could create a situation akin to “Operation Stack on steroids,” a reference to the police operation in Kent, southeast of London, to line trucks up in emergencies on the M20 highway to Dover, Britain’s main port for journeys across the English Channel. In 2015, about 7,000 trucks were backed up along the motorway during a strike by French ferry workers, with vehicles taking 36 hours to work their way to the front and leading some fresh produce to rot.

On Wednesday, Dover’s member of Parliament, Charlie Elphicke, asked May to make at least 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) available to help the port prepare for Brexit. Meanwhile, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said officials are working on measures to ensure temporary holding areas for trucks will be ready on the M20 in time for Brexit day.  

May hopes the 27 will agree in December to move the EU discussions away from divorce arrangements and on to the future trading relationship. But EU officials are increasingly warning that the breakthrough may not come until next year as they await more detail on how much money Britain is prepared to pay to seal Brexit. That would leave until the end of the year to complete an agreement, if it’s to be approved by the U.K. and EU parliaments before March 2019.

Thursday’s study adds to a report by the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that warned that it would be “catastrophic” if the government’s planned new Customs Declaration Service isn’t ready by March 2019 and no viable fallback is in place. It advised the Treasury to ensure funding is in place to develop contingency options if needed.

Cooper’s committee called on the government to publish “detailed” plans for the impact of Brexit to Britain’s customs arrangements of all possible outcomes of the talks, including no deal being reached.

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