There is a “risk of serious disruption and delay” at Channel crossings after the Brexit transition period expires at the end of the month, MPs have said.
In a scathing assessment of the way ministers had planned for the momentous event, the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) questioned the level of preparedness for the UK’s break from Brussels.
The PAC said the Government was “taking limited responsibility” for national readiness with just over four weeks to go to the deadline.
The financial watchdog expressed dismay about the state of affairs after it said it had issued 12 reports on the need for Brexit readiness since the EU referendum four and a half years ago.
The cross-party PAC believes that the necessary systems are not fully in place whether there is a last-minute trade deal with Brussels or not.
The committee stated: “We remain extremely concerned about the risk of serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings.”
The PAC added: “There are still significant risks to the country being ready for the end of the transition period on December 31 2020, but Government still only seems to be taking limited responsibility for that readiness.
“Industry bodies have said that Government has not provided key information needed by businesses to prepare, such as detailed guidance on how to apply for simplified customs procedures.”
MPs noted that the short Channel crossings are the delivery point for a majority of the country’s fresh food supplies.
With talks to try and hammer out a last-minute trade agreement between the UK and EU continuing, PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier expressed severe concerns about the situation.
Labour MP Ms Hillier mocked Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge at the last general election that he had an “oven-ready” Brexit deal by saying it had become more of a “cold turkey”.
Ms Hillier said she hoped the country was not now “facing another catastrophe at the border in four weeks’ time” in the wake of the Government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The committee said: “In 12 reports on preparations for EU exit since the 2016 vote, the PAC has repeatedly raised concerns about the readiness of key border systems and been assured that they 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.”
The PAC added: “The impact of the summer 2019 ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign – which cost £46 million before it was abandoned when an extension was agreed – is unclear.
“And the Government is still not doing enough to ensure businesses and citizens are ready for the end of the transition period. ”
The report stated that a Whitehall survey found 36% of small and medium-sized firms expected the transition period to be extended and that the Cabinet Office admitted it had no knowledge of how many of the remaining 64% will be ready for the change.
The study said: “Government must maximise all remaining opportunities for getting businesses and individuals to act in the time remaining to January 2021.”
The PAC said the situation comes after £4.4 billion has been spent on preparing for EU withdrawal in an operation involving 22,000 civil servants and “many more” paid consultants.
Ms 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’re 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 January 1 we face serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings that deliver a majority of our fresh food supplies.
“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.”
The report stated Brexit preparations and the Covid-19 response had exposed “critical gaps in the civil service’s approach to planning, particularly for unexpected events or undesired outcomes”.
The PAC was highly critical of ministers specifically limiting the amount of contingency planning the civil service could carry out for a Brexit scenario ahead of the June 2016 referendum.
The study also found the Government was spending “too much on consultants to undertake work that could be better done by civil servants, and in so doing does not utilise or develop skills and experience in-house, risking further, ongoing waste of taxpayers’ money”.
The report called for the Cabinet Office to conduct a formal review covering the whole period of preparations.
The PAC study added: “Government still does not have a good grip on how much taxpayers’ money is being spent on cross-government priorities. The Treasury has acknowledged the need for more timely, transparent financial information on cross-government areas of work, including both EU Exit and the Covid-19 response.”
A UK Government spokesman said: “We are making significant preparations to prepare for the guaranteed changes at the end of the transition period including investing £705 million in jobs, technology and infrastructure at the border and providing £84 million in grants to boost the customs intermediaries sector.
“This is alongside implementing border controls in stages so traders have more time to prepare.
“With less than one month to go, it’s vital that businesses and citizens make their final preparations too.
“That’s why we’re intensifying our engagement with businesses through the Brexit Business Taskforce and running a major public information campaign so they know exactly what they need to do to get ready.”