Whitehall chief praises progress on border systems and data but admits disruption is ‘inevitable’

Written by Beckie Smith on 26 November 2020 in News
News

Alex Chisholm says he is ‘confident’ of meeting deadlines but that significant risks remain

Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Civil service leader Alex Chisholm has praised recent progress made on improvements made to technology systems and the flow of data at the UK border, but admitted there will “inevitably” be some disruption after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.

Chisholm, who is chief operating officer of the civil service, told parliament’s Public Accounts Committee this week that while he was “confident” that most programmes government is managing will be ready for the deadline, it would be “remarkable” to expect everything to go to plan.

When the National Audit Office looked at the nine major programmes the Cabinet Office was working on to prepare for Brexit in March, it found eight were rated as red, or high-risk. Just one – trader readiness is now red-rated, Chisholm said.

“I think that’s a measure of the degree of progress we’ve made in relation to systems, to infrastructure, customs intermediaries, data sharing and all these other important, necessary aspects of getting ready for the border at the end of the year,” he told the committee.

The remaining programmes are rated amber, which Chisholm said indicated they would be ready on time for 31 December. Challenged on his definition of “amber”, however, he acknowledged the rating indicated there were significant risks to the projects with issues to be resolved.


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Asked what his biggest concerns were, Chisholm said there were “literally millions of moving parts”, and that there would “inevitably be some difficulties for some individual people as they adjust to the new regime”.

He later added: “When we look at our own preparations, it is coming together quite well and we do therefore feel confident about our own readiness.”

However, referring back to the question about what worried him, he added: “There are so many moving parts, it’s such a complex system interacting with hundreds of different public bodies and hundreds of thousands of businesses, the reality of ‘will everybody do everything they need to do, exactly in the right way without any hitch', that would be a remarkable standard to meet. I don’t expect that will be the case.”

Trader-readiness remains a particular concern, particularly for British traders hoping to export to the EU. Chisholm noted that the European Commission has said it will enforce customs regulations in full after the 31 December deadline.

He said there was a “relatively small amount of time” remaining for government, local authorities and businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period. Even if the government reaches a free trade agreement with the EU, he said there would be little time to prepare for it.

'Getting to 100% is extremely difficult'
To trade with EU countries after the transition period ends, businesses must obtain an EORI number.

HM Revenue and Customs now estimates around 270,000 businesses have obtained an EORI number, including “almost all” high-value businesses, Chisholm said.

However, smaller businesses that are not VAT-registered are a bigger concern. There is no way to automatically register them and no way to know exactly how many such businesses trade with the UK, Emma Churchill, director general at the Cabinet Office’s Border and Protocol Delivery Group, told the committee.

Chisholm told the MPs it was “not surprising” that preparations were not yet complete for the end of the transition period.

“I think that huge advances have been made in our readiness; getting to 100% is extremely difficult with something of this scale and magnitude,” he said.

“[Leaving the EU] is a massive change, it’s an unwinding of something that’s been in place for several decades. So it’s not surprising that there are aspects of our own preparations which we’re still completing, although they are very nearly completed.

"The reality of ‘will everybody do everything they need to do, exactly in the right way without any hitch' - that would be a remarkable standard to meet; I don’t expect that will be the case.”
Alex Chisholm

“And it’s also not surprising to me that, given there’s a need for hundreds of thousands of other organisations, particularly in business, to make some changes, that some of those have not completed their own preparations.”

However, he said the government was doing everything it can to prepare and to encourage others to do so too.

Chisholm said as of this summer, more than 90% of traders had said they were confident they could be ready for the deadline. Since then, it has focused on smaller traders and has seen “clear signs” that small businesses are becoming more aware of the need to prepare – including surveys and numbers accessing information portals on Gov.uk.

Meanwhile, Bernadette Kelly, permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, said there is a “very extensive suite of measures” to encourage hauliers to get ready for the end of the transition period, including a campaign, printed guidance and physical sites where they can obtain advice.

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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