Britain’s response to Brexit risks falling apart like a “chocolate orange” at the first tap, the head of the public spending watchdog has said.
In unusually strong comments, Sir Amyas Morse said ministers were not delivering a united front when it comes to dealing with the challenges of leaving the European Union and raised fears about “vague” exit plans.
The head of the National Audit Office said Brexit was the biggest peacetime challenge to government – but that was “only just beginning to click into people’s awareness in government”.
“It needs to act as far as possible in a unified way and we have an issue there because of departmental government,” he added.
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“What we don’t want to find is that at the first tap, this falls apart like a chocolate orange. It needs to be coming through as uniform, a little bit more like a cricket ball.”
Sir Amyas said there was “very little flexibility” in plans for a new customs system and the department in charge was not being given the backing it needed to put strong backup plans in place.
He added it would be a “horror show” if officials had to resort to manually processing imports and exports.
The chief auditor said he “wouldn’t be speaking like this” if he thought the support needed across government to deal with Brexit was in place.
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Sir Amyas said the Government could take more action to cut the risk of the customs system not being ready on the day Britain quits the bloc, but appeared to be easing off on the risks of Brexit.
He warned “active energetic” support for Whitehall departments was needed but suggested they were being left to their own devices to see how they got on.
Sir Amyas said he had “expressed interest” to Brexit Secretary David Davis and officials at his department in seeing a report on the overall preparedness across government, but the response had been “vague”.
The NAO boss said he was not seeing evidence of strong integration and warned it would be “very second best” to respond when problems occurred instead of planning for them in advance.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) estimates the number of annual customs declarations will increase from 55 million to 255 million after March 2019.
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But the new Customs Declaration Service (CDS) for processing imports and exports, which was signed off before the EU referendum, is expected to be finished just two months before Brexit is scheduled to take effect.
Sir Amyas said a significant increase in border staff will be needed to cope with a massive rise in declarations once Britain leaves the customs union.
An HMRC spokesman said: “We took the decision to bring in a new declaration system before the EU referendum, but the service remains fully capable of dealing with how the UK’s exit from the EU will impact on customs declarations at the border.”
A Government spokesman said it was “alive to the task” of Brexit and was “working together to deliver on the will of the British people”.
“Cabinet ministers meet regularly on Brexit to co-ordinate work on this and we have put forward a series of Bills in the Queen’s Speech to prepare the country for leaving the EU.”