Business

Nearly £5bn spent on EU border checks, some of which were not needed, says independent watchdog

Traders are facing increased costs and more paperwork due to Brexit border controls, according to a new report from the independent public spending watchdog.

The government is estimated to have spent £4.7bn so far but some of that spending was not necessary, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.

Despite the UK voting to leave the European Union in 2016 – and officially exiting in 2020 – many border control checks are yet to be implemented.

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It is “not clear” when the checks will be fully in place, said Parliament’s spending authority in its trade border report, and there is no timetable for government to achieve its “world’s most effective border” target.

This lack of certainty, as well as “repeated delays” in bringing in import controls, resulted in spending on infrastructure and staff that was “ultimately not needed”, according to the NAO.

Those delays and the associated uncertainty have also impacted businesses by adding extra cost and admin burdens, the watchdog added.

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Late policy announcements have reduced the ability of businesses and ports to prepare for changes, the report said.

After five delays, the first phase of border barriers – requiring additional certification – came into force on 31 January this year, with a second phase having started on 30 April when physical checks were introduced at ports.

A third phase, requiring safety and security declarations, is scheduled for 31 October. These phases are partial import controls.

‘Increased biosecurity risk’

The UK is at “increased biosecurity risk” due to the phased implementation approach and having lost access to EU surveillance and alert systems after Brexit, the NAO said.

There is reduced awareness of “impending dangers”, such as African Swine Fever, it added.

Customs declaration work borne by businesses had been estimated to cost organisations a collective £7.5bn, according to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) figures in 2019, which the NAO notes has not been updated despite 39m customs declarations being made on goods moving between Britain and the EU in 2022.

The government’s £4.7bn figure is an estimate of post-Brexit border management and does not factor in the full, eventual cost.

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Strategy ‘lacks clear timetable’

It has not specified when a full regime will be in place but said it intends to introduce most of the remaining import controls during 2024.

The NAO said the 2025 UK border strategy “lacks a clear timetable” and cross-government delivery plan, with individual departments leading and implementing different parts.

It added that annual reports on progress will not be published until 2025 “at the earliest”, despite the government saying in its border strategy in 2020 that it would publish yearly progress reports.

The NAO recommended full border controls operate at all ports “as soon as possible”.

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