It would be “catastrophic” if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in March 2019 without a new customs system in place, the government has been warned.
In a report published on Tuesday, the influential parliamentary public accounts committee said there was a risk of “massive queues at Dover” and “food being left to rot in trucks at the border”.
The MPs said after Brexit the number of checks HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) will have to carry out each year could increase fivefold to 255 million.
“It would be catastrophic if HM Revenue & Customs’ new customs system, the Customs Declaration Service, is not ready in time and if there is no viable fall-back option,” the report concluded.
Under Theresa May’s plan for Brexit, the UK will leave the single market and the customs union.
Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the committee, said HMRC should be “banging on the doors of the Treasury” in order to secure the funding it needs to get the system operational in time to deal with the change.
“Failure to have a viable customs system in place before the UK’s planned exit from the EU would wreak havoc for UK business, trade and our international reputation. Confidence would collapse amid the potentially catastrophic effects,” she said.
“HMRC is under considerable pressure to deliver the new Customs Declaration Service in time, but it does not yet have funding to increase the capacity of CDS to deal with the consequences of Brexit – nor to develop contingency options.
“This is deeply worrying. HMRC requires a relatively small sum to upgrade the current CHIEF system – a move which would provide some peace of mind to traders, many of whom are still operating with limited information and in great uncertainty.”
“HMRC must press the case to secure this funding now and ensure that, if other plans fail, customs will be fit for purpose.”
Lib Dem Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake commented: “This report exposes the major threat Brexit poses to our ports, businesses and food supply. Thousands of businesses risk being left in the lurch because of the extreme Brexit this government has chosen.”
Eloise Todd, the CEO of Best for Britain, the pro-Remain campaign group, said the report was “a damning indictment on the government”.
“We are facing the prospect of Brexit gridlock at Dover with lorries backed up for miles. Taking back control is not making people wait for hour after hour to get through customs,” she said.
“The government has no plan and no clue and their utter shambles will impact on jobs and investment throughout the UK.”
In September, the boss of Sainsbury’s also warned of fresh food being left to rot at the border after Brexit.
Mike Coupe said a third of British food is sourced from the EU and borders checks that slowed lorries by even a few hours would have a “detrimental effect on freshness”.
The government has said it will hire an extra 5,000 customs staff to cope with Brexit.
HMRC boss John Thompson warned MPs last month that he would need significantly more staff if Britain was to cope properly with a collapse in negotiations with Brussels over trade deals.