Britain’s new Brexit ministers are set for a tough first day on the job after a new damming assessment laid bare the impact the split has had on trade with the EU.
Parliament’s spending watchdog today warned that red tape has damaged Britain’s trade with the EU and the situation could worsen unless the government works with Brussels to reduce hold-ups at UK ports.
Only hours after Jacob Rees-Mogg was appointed minister for Brexit opportunities, a report by the cross-party public accounts committee (PAC) said border checks in place since the beginning of the year had increased business costs and “suppressed” trade with the EU.
The PAC said there was a risk that the situation would worsen in September, when stricter checks are implemented by the EU and a forecast post-Covid recovery in global trade increases traffic through UK ports.
Urging ministers to upgrade port systems and infrastructure, especially at Dover, the committee’s chair, Meg Hillier, said it had “repeatedly raised concerns about the impact of changes to trading arrangements on businesses of all sizes, and we remain concerned”.
Under the terms of the Brexit deal negotiated by Boris Johnson in December 2020, the EU introduced full import controls in January 2022 after a yearlong transition period.
The UK government intended to do the same, but has delayed three times over the last year and the PAC report said officials could not give a “complete assurance that it would not do so again”.
“Much remains to be done to introduce import controls, and in particular to ensure that traders and hauliers across the 27 EU member states are ready as the controls are phased in,” the report added.
As part of the upgrade, the UK must adapt port equipment and border checks by September to avoid huge disruption to holidaymakers and haulage firms when the EU switches to biometric identity checks that would force travellers to exit their vehicles.
Hillier said the government claimed it would develop “the most effective border in the world” by 2025, which she described as a “noteworthy ambition”, but “it is optimistic, given where things stand today”.
She added: “One of the great promises of Brexit was freeing British businesses to give them the headroom to maximise their productivity and contribution to the economy – even more desperately needed now on the long road to recovery from the pandemic. Yet the only detectable impact so far is increased costs, paperwork and border delays.
“The PAC has repeatedly reported on Brexit preparedness and at every step there have been delays to promised deadlines. It’s time the government was honest about the problems rather than overpromising.”
Home Office officials are in talks with the French authorities about how to operate the new controls without causing queues, but the report described them as “at an early stage”.
Forecasts of the costs to businesses are expected to be lowered, though it is not clear by how much, the report said.
Queues seen from space
Earlier this year lorry queues on the roads around Dover grew so big they could be spotted from space.
Drivers have expressed fury at the delays, describing the situation as “absolute carnage” and blaming a cocktail of delays to Brexit checks and cumbersome Covid paperwork.
Port chiefs have urged the UK government to hold talks with the EU about easing further checks set to come in later this year, amid fears they could have a “disastrous” impact on trade.
One haulier told The Independent that he had been stuck in queues up to nine miles long since full customs controls came into force at the beginning of January.
“It’s entirely Brexit – you can’t blame it on anything else but Brexit,” said the driver.