Auditors’ assessment praises work that has taken place so far but warns of ongoing threats to successful delivery
The National Audit Office has saluted departments’ efforts to handle the end of the EU transition period from the start of January this year – but cautioned that risks still remain in ensuring the efficacy of key border systems.
In a report on post-Brexit border arrangements between Great Britain and the EU, the public-spending watchdog acknowledged the government had been able to deliver an “initial” capability at the border. However it noted that “much more work” is needed to bring in import controls, reduce the burden on traders, and resolve the position for Northern Ireland.
In the run-up to the UK’s final exit from the European Union, departments including the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs faced a huge workload in preparing new IT systems and digital services to support customs, import and export, and immigration procedures at the UK border.
The NAO report said that, while significant queues did not did not materialise at the border on 1 January, stockpiling, trader concern about new import controls and the impact of the pandemic were all contributory factors. It added that the government had pushed back the introduction of import controls three times so far, and full import controls were not now due to be introduced until July next year.
The report said delaying the introduction of import controls, offering easements and support for traders were approaches that “cannot go on indefinitely”, and might be a challenge risk on the part of World Trade Organisation partners.
The NAO report said the government had reported being on track to meet its previous timetable for most controls to be introduced by January 2022.
The watchdog agreed most of the systems, infrastructure and resources needed for January 2022 were on track, but found “elements where delivery was at risk and where departments might have had to deploy contingency plans”.
It added that there was still “considerable uncertainty” regarding future arrangements for the Northern Ireland Protocol, which currently also has grace periods that have delayed requirements for some checks and preparations.
The NAO said the volume of checks required on animals, plants and related products arriving in Northern Ireland would increase significantly once those grace periods expire, while talks between the UK and EU are ongoing about the future of the protocol.
NAO head Gareth Davies said managing the end of the transition period had been a considerable task for which departments deserved credit, but cautioned that the scale of future challenges should not be underestimated.
“We recognise the significant achievement of government, departments and third parties in delivering the initial operating capability needed at the border for the end of the transition period,” he said. “However, this was done in part by using interim measures and by delaying the introduction of full import controls. Much more work is needed to put in place a model for the border that reduces the risk of non-compliance with international trading rules, does not require any temporary fixes, and is less complicated and burdensome for border users.”
The NAO said the UK government should prioritise addressing risks related to infrastructure and trader and haulier readiness, and provide support and guidance they need to adapt to new rules as they are introduced.
It added that the government should also prioritise efforts to streamline border processes and reduce the administrative burden on traders.
The NAO said traders completed around 48 million customs declarations on goods moving between Great Britain and the EU and between the UK and the rest of the world in the first eight months of 2021. Meanwhile, certifying officers signed off 140,000 export-health certificates for goods moving from the UK to the EU between January and June this year.
It said the UK’s trade with the European Union fell significantly in the first quarter of 2021, but partially recovered in the second quarter.
The NAO said the Office for National Statistics had stressed the impossibility of disentangling the impacts of Brexit from the effects of the pandemic. However, it flagged the “significantly greater” reduction in trade with the EU in the first half of 2021 compared with trade between the UK and the rest of the world.