NAO Warns Post-Brexit Border Checks to Cost UK £4.7bn

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The UK government is projected to spend at least £4.7 billion on post-Brexit border controls, which have faced repeated delays and incurred unnecessary costs, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Plans to implement border checks on EU goods encountered “significant issues,” including critical shortages of inspectors before their introduction last month, the NAO revealed. Despite aiming for the “world’s most effective border” by 2025, the strategy lacks “a clear timetable and an integrated cross-government delivery plan,” with individual departments responsible for different elements.

The government estimates it will spend £4.7 billion on 13 major border-related programmes over their lifetimes, with £2.6 billion already spent by March 2023. The Cabinet Office’s confidence in introducing physical checks on plant and animal imports by April was rated as “amber,” indicating feasibility but requiring significant management attention. Challenges included recruiting and training port health authority inspectors and ensuring sufficient legislative support for the new checks.

A recent IT outage further highlighted the lack of preparedness, causing lorries to be held at border posts for up to 20 hours, affecting many import businesses.

Physical checks on lorries bringing animal and plant products from the continent, introduced on 30 April, mirror those the EU implemented for UK imports post-Brexit. However, the Cabinet Office flagged staff shortages and an undefined approach to compliance and enforcement as critical issues earlier this year.

NAO head Gareth Davies noted, “More than three years after the end of the transition period, it is still not clear when full controls will be in place.” He emphasised the need for strong delivery and accountability, along with effective monitoring to achieve the border strategy’s objectives.

Despite passing crucial laws in April to designate border posts, the government had to scale back some checks to avoid disruption shortly before implementation, following five previous delays since July 2021. These delays led to wasted taxpayer funds on unused infrastructure and staff. For example, £62 million was spent on two unused sites near Dover, and £258 million on eight temporary border facilities now closed. Additionally, 520 staff were recruited for border checks between 2020 and 2021, but 370 were no longer needed after a change in approach in 2022.

Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, criticised the delays and costs, stating, “A key promise of Brexit was that we would take back control of our border. Yet more than three years after the end of the transition period, full import controls are still not in place.”

A government spokesperson defended the strategy, highlighting new risk-based checks and the upcoming Single Trade Window to streamline import processes, while claiming progress with January and April rollouts and a pragmatic approach to minimise disruption.

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