Failure on customs plan could cause 'Operation Stack on steroids', MPs warn

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Britain faces a repeat of the 2015 cross-Channel transport chaos if the Government botches plans for post-Brexit customs arrangements, a parliamentary report has warned.

A Commons committee claimed failure could see lorry drivers and holidaymakers facing enormous queues and long delays the day after the UK's departure from the EU.

MPs cited the summer disruption seen two years ago following a strike by French workers and a dramatic surge in attempts by migrants to reach Britain from Calais.

As the crisis unfolded a response known as Operation Stack was activated in Kent to manage traffic heading towards Eurotunnel or ferry services.

Operation Stack at-a-glance
(PA graphic/2015)

The Home Affairs Committee flagged up the episode as it published a critique of the Government's planning for post-Brexit customs operations.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the committee, said: "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, which would be incredibly damaging to the UK economy and completely unacceptable to the country.

"Contingency planning is essential. If the Government gets this all wrong, we could be facing Operation Stack on steroids."

Any new arrangements put in place at UK ports will need to be replicated at the Channel ports in France and Belgium, the committee's assessment said.

It said the events of 2015 "clearly demonstrated how quickly delays and backlogs can build up when the flow of traffic is interrupted at ports, and the dire knock-on effects this can have in the UK, particularly in Kent on the approach roads to Dover".

The report noted that illegal immigration is another "potentially increased risk" arising from delays at French and Belgian ports.

A migrant climbs over a fence on to the tracks at the Eurotunnel site at Coquelles in Calais
A migrant climbs over a fence on to the tracks at the Eurotunnel site at Coquelles in Calais in 2015 (Yui Mok/PA)

Britain's future relationship with the EU on customs is one of the issues under the spotlight in Brexit negotiations.

Goods worth hundreds of billions of pounds are traded between the UK and the EU every year.

The committee argued that the outcome that would cause the least upheaval for ports and traders would be keeping the status quo for customs arrangements.

If this is not possible, then businesses and haulage operators urgently need details of what changes will be introduced, according to the report.

It also described Home Office plans to boost Border Force staff by 300, or 4%, as "completely unconvincing".

It is the second Commons committee to raise concerns about the issue this week.

A separate assessment published on Tuesday warned that failure to complete the introduction of a new customs system by the Brexit date would be "catastrophic".

Our Chair @Meg_HillierMP: Failure to have a viable customs system in place before Brexit would wreak havoc for UK business, trade and reputation. Read our Report #hmrc#brexithttps://t.co/Jn7lYRSWk2

-- Public Accounts Comm (@CommonsPAC) November 14, 2017

A Government spokeswoman said: "We have outlined our proposals for ambitious future trade and customs relationships with the EU and are confident we will reach agreement.

"We will ensure we have the resources we need to continue to run effective customs, borders and immigration systems in the future. A good deal with the EU is in our mutual interest.

"We are optimistic about achieving that, but it is the duty of a responsible government to plan for a range of scenarios, which is exactly what we are doing."

On the 300 additional frontline Border Force officers, the Government said the number could change depending on the outcome of negotiations and "workflow monitoring".