There must be an “urgent acceleration” in the contingency planning for a no deal Brexit if the UK is to avoid chaos at its borders, the government has been warned.
In a report published on Thursday, the influential Commons Home Affairs Committee told ministers to reveal early in the New Year how Britain will handle customs checks if trade talks with the EU collapse.
The MPs also warned it would be “extremely damaging”, including to national security, if any agreement on a Brexit transition deal was delayed beyond the first quarter of 2018.
It comes as the government admitted it would no longer try to build a 3,600-capacity lorry park holding park near Dover to deal with potential tailbacks.
Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the committee, said the government’s border planning for Brexit was “extremely unconvincing”.
Under the government’s Brexit plan, the UK will leave the EU customs union – the arrangement that allows goods to flow freely between Britain and the EU with very few checks.
Theresa May has said she wants to see “the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods between the UK and the EU” after Brexit.
But the EU has dismissed the idea that a non-member state country can have frictionless trade.
The European Parliament’s Brexit spokesman, Guy Verhofstadt, has said it would be “a fantasy”.
It raises the prospect of long queues at Dover as goods vehicles are forced to wait to be cleared by customs officials before being allowed to travel to the continent.
In a separate report on Tuesday, the Commons Public Accounts Committee warned the failure to implement a new customs system by the end of March 2019 would result in “massive queues at Dover” and “food being left to rot in trucks at the border”.
In its report, the home affairs committee said if no deal is reached on customs arrangements it risked “either significant delays at ports of entry, or of inadequate checks taking place”.
“A major contingency plan is therefore needed for the border which sets out the volume and nature of checks that the Government would expect to operate in the event of no deal,” the report said.
“It should include plans for extra staff, additional infrastructure and new processes for businesses, and set out the costs of these plans.
“The long lead times that these changes require mean that, even if negotiations on a transitional arrangement continue throughout next year, the country cannot afford ‘no deal’ arrangements to be left until the last minute.
“Therefore, Ministers need to set out early in the New Year the timetable they will follow for decisions, including when extra staff will start to be recruited and trained on a contingency basis, and what the costs and funding arrangements will be.
“The Government will also need to provide detail to businesses on the checks they can expect on goods at the border in the event of no deal, so that they can put in place their own contingency arrangements.”
Cooper said: “There must also be an urgent acceleration of contingency planning in case there is no deal at all.
“We found the 4% increase in Border Force staff at the borders completely unconvincing.
“The Government must not allow bad policy decisions or poor contingency planning to mean that Border Force staff are pulled away from security, illegal goods and immigration checks to cover for customs chaos. Ministers must not allow Brexit implementation put our security at risk.”
In 2016, the value of goods traded between the UK and the EU was £382bn, compared with £393bn traded with the rest of the world.
About four million goods vehicles cross the Channel each year, with 2.5 million passing through the port of Dover alone in 2015.