Home Office preparations for the UK exiting the EU Contents

2The UK border system

UK border operations

49.In 2017, around 205 million people crossed the border between the UK and EU, along with 77 million people from the rest of the world. In the same period, just over 400 million tonnes of freight crossed the UK border.96 The Home Office is the main Government department responsible for managing this traffic, which it does through several directorates. Border Force is responsible for securing the border and managing the traffic of goods and people across it, which includes operating on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs to collect customs duties and conduct physical searches of goods. Meanwhile, UK Visas and Immigration makes decisions on applications from people to enter and stay in the UK.97

Implications of the withdrawal agreement for UK border operations

50.EU membership means that goods from non-EU countries are in free circulation once they reach the EU. With both the UK and Ireland in the EU, there is therefore no need to make regular checks on people or goods travelling across the many land crossing points.98 Nor are there requirements to make customs declarations for intra-EU trade.99

51.In November 2018, the UK and the EU published a final withdrawal agreement for the UK’s exit from the EU.100 This established the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU on 29 March 2019.101 The key points of the withdrawal agreement relating to the UK border system are:

a)Movement of people across borders: UK nationals living in the EU and EU nationals living in the UK continuously and lawfully for five years by the end of the transition period will have the right to reside permanently.102 There will be no exit or entry visa requirements for UK and EU citizens travelling between the UK and EU member states during transition.103 In Ireland, the common travel area will continue to operate and, unless it is superseded by the future relationship, a single customs territory will be established between the UK and the EU, as part of the commitment to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.104

b)Movement of goods across borders: Goods that enter the UK or the EU market under EU law before the end of the implementation period may continue to circulate freely between the UK and the EU.105 There will, however, be additional procedures for live animals and for animal and germinal products.106

These conditions will apply throughout the transition period, which will continue until 31 December 2020. The UK has the option to request one extension to the transition period, for a maximum of two years.107

52.In November 2017, we highlighted the importance of having a transitional period, given that customs was a “cliff-edge” issue: without agreement, significant new customs checks would be required immediately on leaving the EU.108 The agreement that the UK will stay in a customs union with the EU during transition should ensure minimal disruption to border operations during the transition period, since there would be no requirement for additional customs checks.109

The political declaration and implications for UK border operations

53.On 25 November, the UK and the EU also published a political declaration concerning the future relationship between the UK and the EU.110 The declaration allows for a wide range of outcomes regarding the trade in goods. It states there would be an “ambitious customs arrangements” to “build and improve on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement which obviates the need for checks on rules of origin”, with no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all goods sectors, supported by deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.111 However, any alignment by the UK to EU rules would only be considered “a factor in reducing risk” at the border, rather than preventing the application of customs and regulatory checks and controls.112

54.Other statements in the political declaration, however, suggest more regulatory divergence, which could lead, the declaration states, to “a spectrum of different outcomes for administrative processes as well as checks and controls.”113 The document also refers to “facilitative arrangements and technologies” which could ensure the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing, but the Government has not brought forward any recent proposals, workable plans or investment timetables to achieve this objective.114

55.The political declaration recognises “the development of an independent trade policy by the United Kingdom” and the Prime Minister has indicated that the UK will not be bound by the common external tariff of the EU Customs Union.115 This would imply significant additional checks at UK-EU borders and also rules of origin checks. At the same time, the Prime Minister has stated, going beyond what is set out in the document, that the UK-EU free trade area will have no “rules of origin checks” and that the UK “will be working for frictionless trade”.116 The Prime Minister has implied that the proposals for a facilitated customs arrangement set out in the July White Paper could achieve the UK’s objectives, yet these have been criticised by EU leaders and the Government itself accepts that frictionless trade “is not an aim shared by everyone in the EU”.117 No arrangements that could reconcile the objectives of frictionless trade and an independent trade policy are set out in the political declaration.

56.The political declaration provides little certainty about future arrangements. Our 2017 report on customs operations highlighted the need for clarity about future arrangements in the event of no-deal, or after any transition period ends, so that preparations can begin.118 Likewise, private traders and infrastructure operators will need clarity in order to make preparations.119 We concluded in November 2017 that it was essential that the Government urgently provided a greater deal of certainty regarding future border and customs processes, in order to allow stakeholders to make the necessary preparations.120

57.We are extremely concerned by the lack of any clarity on what the customs and border arrangements in the future partnership might be, and therefore what the Home Office and the rest of Government should be preparing for. The political declaration does not reconcile the Government’s objectives of achieving an independent trade policy and frictionless trade, and provides no assurance that there will not be additional checks and controls at the border.

Home Office preparations

58.The Home Office faces significant challenges recruiting enough staff to operate at the border ahead of Brexit. In October, the Immigration Minister told us that, deal or no deal, Border Force would need 900 extra staff in place by March 2019.121 In November, Home Office officials told us that the Home Office required 4,100 people to work on Brexit, but as at 13 November it had only recruited 2,662 of them.122 This is no surprise given the Home Office told the Public Accounts Committee in November that it had an 84-stage recruitment process.123

59.The Home Office has also struggled to upgrade its IT systems. In 2010, the Home Office attempted to replace its immigration casework system (CID) and 20 other IT and paper-based systems with a new Immigration Case Work (ICW) computer. This programme was closed in 2013, after £347 million in spending, despite having failed to deliver all the planned functions.124 Attempts to deliver other IT systems, such as the e-borders programme to collect advance passenger information, or the Department’s programme to upgrade the communications systems used by UK emergency services, have also experienced significant problems.125

60.We welcome the agreement between the UK and EU that there will be a transitional period, and the commitment to keep trade between the UK and EU tariff-free after the transition period ends. We are disappointed, however, by the political declaration’s ambiguity regarding the future scale of checks and controls at the border. The wide range of outcomes allowable under the declaration will make it extremely challenging for the Home Office to make preparations for UK border operations after transition ends. Given the Home Office’s track record in hiring people and developing IT systems, any significant programmes of work will need to begin immediately. The Home Office should provide us with a statement outlining the programmes it will need to carry out to transition successfully to whatever the new system will be, and when they will deliver them by.


61.The provisions to protect the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK and the rights of UK citizens in the EU were set out in previous documents, which we considered in our report, ‘Home Office delivery of Brexit: Immigration’ in February of this year.126 In that report we welcomed the Government’s announced intention to make the registration process for EU residents a smooth process, but also noted the significant risks attached to implementation of information-sharing and digital services across government, and highlighted a number of unanswered questions. Since then the Government has published a statement of intent, added ‘Appendix EU’ to the Immigration Rules and commenced testing of the settled status application process.127 A second and considerably more significant trial phase is now underway, involving up to 250,000 EU citizens working in the health and education sectors and due to continue until 21 December.128 We will look again at how the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK, as well as the rights of UK citizens in the EU, are being protected in the New Year, when the results of this testing are known.

62.On future EU migration, in our eighth report (“Policy Options for Future Migration from the EEA: Interim report”), we highlighted that reciprocal arrangements for migration could have a considerable bearing on how close an economic partnership the UK can agree with the EU.129 The Government originally stated that an immigration White Paper would be published in the autumn of 2017. The then Home Secretary told us in October 2017 that it would be published “by the end of the year”.130 The current Home Secretary told us he planned to “do a White Paper before the summer recess” when he came before us in May, and then in July he told us the White Paper would be published “in the autumn”.131 On 27 November, the Home Secretary could not confirm whether the White Paper would be published before the ‘meaningful vote’ on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on 11 December. He said: “I would certainly expect it by the end of this year in December”.132 On 29 November, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee that “there is still discussion ongoing as to the timing of the immigration White Paper.”133

63.At the time of agreeing this report, the White Paper has not yet been published. In terms of the Government’s policy on future migration arrangements, they remain as limited as they were when we released our previous report on policy options for future migration from the EEA.134 This lack of detail has led to considerable concern, including around the Government’s policy intentions in the event of a no-deal. The Immigration Minister wrote to us after some confusion on this matter, stating that in the event of a no deal there would need to be some kind of transition.135 As the political declaration says very little about the potential policies that will apply to UK citizens and EU citizens in a future immigration system, Parliament is being asked to vote on leaving the EU without fully knowing how it will affect people’s ability to live and work in different countries in future. That means businesses have little idea how they might be able to recruit talent from elsewhere in the EU. Similarly, UK citizens and businesses do not know what rights they will have to move, live and work in the EU.

64.It is deeply unhelpful and unsatisfactory that Parliament will not be able to consider the Government’s immigration proposals in advance of the vote on the 11 December. We have consistently expressed significant concerns about the long delays to the paper’s publication, given that immigration was an issue that was so central to the referendum campaign in 2016. Based on the evidence we have seen, we were left with the clear impression that the continued delays in publication of the White Paper have been exacerbated by confusion over who is driving the policy between the Home Office and the Prime Minister. The Government has provided a distinct lack of information on its immigration proposals, and of time for Parliament to consider them before the vote on the deal. This is an unacceptable way for the Government to operate.

96 National Audit Office, The UK border: preparedness for EU exit, October 2018

97 National Audit Office, The UK border, October 2017

98 Home Affairs Committee, Home Office delivery of Brexit: customs operations, November 2017

102 Withdrawal agreement (footnote 10), Articles 13 and 15

103 Withdrawal agreement (footnote 10), Article 14

104 Withdrawal agreement (footnote 10), Protocol on Northern Ireland

105 Withdrawal agreement (footnote 10), Article 47

107 Withdrawal agreement (footnote 10), Articles 126 and 132

108 Home Affairs Committee, Home Office delivery of Brexit: customs operations, November 2017

111 Political declaration (footnote 15), paragraphs 22, 23 and 26

112 Political declaration (footnote 15), paragraph 28

113 Political declaration (footnote 15), paragraphs 24 and 28

114 Political declaration (footnote 15), paragraph 27

115 Political declaration (footnote 15), Paragraph 17; Liaison Committee, Oral evidence from the Prime Minister: Brexit, 29 November 2018, Q68

116 Hansard, Leaving the EU, 26 November 2018

117 Liaison Committee, Oral evidence from the Prime Minister: Brexit, 29 November 2018; Department for Exiting the European Union, Taking back control of our borders, money, and laws while protecting our economy, security and Union, November 2018

118 Home Affairs Committee, Home Office delivery of Brexit: customs operations, November 2017

119 National Audit Office, The UK border: preparedness for EU exit, October 2018

120 Home Affairs Committee, Home Office delivery of Brexit: customs operations, November 2017

122 Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: Work of the Home Office, 13 November 2018, Q82

123 Public Accounts Committee, Oral evidence: Brexit and the UK Border: Progress Review, 5 November 2018, Q119

124 National Audit Office, Reforming the UK border and Immigration System, July 2014

125 National Audit Office, E-borders and successor programmes, December 2015
National Audit Office, Upgrading emergency service communications: the Emergency Services Network, September 2016

126 Home Affairs Committee, Home Office delivery of Brexit: immigration, February 2018

130 Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: Work of the Home Secretary, 28 March 2018, Q29, Q197

131 Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: Windrush Children, 15 May 2018, Q280; Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: Work of the Home Secretary, 10 July 2018, Q412

132 Home Affairs Committee, Oral evidence: The work of the Home Secretary, November 2018, Qq534–536

133 Liaison Committee, Oral evidence from the Prime Minister: Brexit, 29 November 2018, Q80

135 Home Office (BBS0002)

Published: 7 December 2018