LONDON — The UK government risks a Brexit “horror-show” when it transitions to a new IT system designed to cope with a five-fold increase in customs declarations, the head of the National Audit Office said.
Amyas Morse, the auditor general, said the government had only given “vague” assurances that the Customs Declarations Service — a computerised duties and imports clearing system — would be ready before the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019.
Around half of the UK’s imports come from the EU and do not require checks because of Britain’s membership of the customs union and single market.
Prime Minister Theresa May has signalled she will take the UK out of the 28-nation trading bloc as part of the Brexit process, which will see the number of declarations increase from 55 million a year to around 255 million 2019.
The current system has the capacity to handle a maximum of 100 million declarations and would buckle under the demands of Brexit, leading to the horror show described by Morse. Around £696 billion in goods flowed across the UK border in 2015, with HMRC collecting £34 billion a year in tax and duties from the trade.
Morse made the comments after presenting a NAO report published on Thursday.
The NAO said: “HMRC does not yet know how many of the estimated 180,000 traders that currently interact solely within the EU will make customs declarations under a new arrangement with the EU, nor their readiness to make declarations from March 2019.”
The NAO also said that staff shortages could delay the new system: “At the end of March 2017, there were 67 vacancies in the programme team, with 9 required immediately to prevent an adverse impact on the delivery of the programme. By 27 June 2017, the vacancies had reduced to 48, with 4 required immediately,” the report said.
“What is clear is that the timeline for completing the CDS programme under its current scope allows very little flexibility should the programme overrun or unexpected problems occur,” the NAO said, recommending that other government bodies help HMRC to deliver the project on time.
HMRC said in a statement to the Guardian: “The Customs Declaration Service is on track for delivery by January 2019 and will support international trade once the UK leaves the European Union.”