Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, has announced a £705m package of measures to strengthen Britain’s borders, claiming it would help the UK “seize the opportunities” of Brexit.
Mr Gove has had to delay by six months the full implementation of border controls from January 1 — when the Brexit transition period ends — after he claimed Covid-19 had held up preparations.
That has led to tensions with Liz Truss, trade secretary, who said the porous border could lead to smuggling and breach Britain’s obligations under the World Trade Organization to carry out checks.
Mr Gove’s plans include new border control posts and 500 extra Border Force staff, with proposals to set up checks away from ports that do not have the space to expand customs controls.
The money will include £470m for port and inland infrastructure and £235m for IT systems and staffing, while there will also be more cash for HM Revenue & Customs to reduce the burden on traders who will face new paperwork when trading with the EU.
Even in the event of Britain signing a tariff-free trade deal with the EU, new customs declarations will be required.
Mr Gove has not contested industry claims that 50,000 private sector customs agents will be needed to help with the form filling.
Public policy editor Peter Foster probes the gap between ministerial rhetoric and a new reality for business and industry, as Britain enters the final, critical stages of negotiations with the EU. Get Brexit Briefing in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up here.
Last week a leaked letter from Ms Truss, first reported by Business Insider, saw the trade secretary express concerns about Mr Gove’s plan to phase in checks on EU goods coming into the UK after January 1.
Mr Gove, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, said he wanted to create the “world’s most effective border by 2025”. He also announced plans for a publicity campaign to urge Britain’s business to prepare for “the UK’s new start”.
He added: “Whether you’re the managing director of a multinational conglomerate or a family business; a UK citizen resident in the EU or planning to work abroad, the new campaign will clearly set out the steps that will help this big change go as smoothly as possible.”
Rachel Reeves, shadow cabinet office minister, said it was astonishing that Mr Gove was only increasing spending on border preparations five months before the end of the transition period, when the country had voted for Brexit in 2016.
“It’s too little too late,” Ms Reeves told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme. She said she would rather the government was spending money on schools and hospitals instead of a new lorry park in Kent.
Mr Gove told Sky’s Sophy Ridge that the government was changing its advice to people to work from home where possible, amid fears that homeworking was holding back the economic recovery.
“We want to see more people back at work on the shop floor or in the office wherever they can be,” he said.
Mr Gove said later on the Marr programme that progress was being made in trade talks with the EU and claimed there was “movement” on the EU side. “There are hopeful signs but I would not want to be over-enthusiastic.”