The UK government has been accused of playing down the potential disruption to ports other than those closest to France in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Papers released last week about Operation Yellowhammer, the official plan to handle a no-deal withdrawal, suggested there would be a “low risk of significant sustained queues at ports outside of Kent which have high volumes of EU traffic”.
But Department for Transport documents dated August 2019 seen by the FT show this is only because tens of thousands of vehicles would be turned away for being “non-compliant”, meaning the drivers did not have the correct permits or completed the appropriate paperwork.
In Liverpool, Holyhead and Portsmouth about two-thirds of vehicles would not be allowed into the port in the aftermath of an abrupt exit from the EU, according to the papers marked “official sensitive”.
One person familiar with the matter said queues at ports such as Portsmouth would only remain manageable because so many vehicles would be turned away. “Queues to get through customs in ports outside of Kent will be OK only if you assume that traffic flows will be significantly reduced before vehicles get to the port,” he said. “Yellowhammer didn’t give us the full picture . . . one could say it was seriously misleading.”
One document sets out the volume of vehicles that will be allowed into the ports compared to usual, which it calls the flow rate. “One hundred per cent of non-compliant vehicles will be turned away, which means the resulting flow rate is 29 per cent at Holyhead, Heysham and Liverpool, and 32 per cent at Portsmouth.”
The DfT was unable to say whether the additional checking would create extra queues. But one document said imports would only be able to flow freely at Portsmouth if there were “local arrangements preventing HGVs that have been turned back from blocking inbound flow”.
The issue was set to be discussed at the meeting of the XO committee of ministers responsible for no-deal planning on Monday morning.
Andy McDonald, shadow transport secretary, said the DfT was “not being straight with the public” by only publishing selective assumptions that were “practically meaningless”.
“Much of the analysis only seems to consider those vehicles which have the correct paperwork and totally overlooks the impact of those HGVs which won’t,” he said.
“The Tories have already said that some vehicles will have to get out of the way for others in the event of a no-deal Brexit and this evidence suggests it will be small and medium-sized businesses who are the biggest losers.”
Operation Yellowhammer does spell out the potential impact to Dover if the French impose EU mandatory controls on day one after a no-deal Brexit. The document says that the number of vehicles could fall to 40-60 per cent of current levels for up to three months, with queues in Kent of up to two-and-a-half days in “a reasonable worst-case scenario”.
However another sensitive document from the DfT spells out that tailbacks outside Dover could stretch to around 150km.
“Queues could reach a peak of 8,500 vehicles, a two-day maximum delay and a 1.5 day average delay,” it said.
With a typical articulated lorry being about 16.5m long, a queue of 8,500 such vehicles would stretch for some 150km, the distance from Dover to Guildford in Surrey.
Craig Beaumont, director of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said the revelations reinforced his organisation’s concern that its members would probably suffer more from a no-deal Brexit because they generally find it harder to navigate the complex bureaucracy.
“We have told DfT that we cannot see small companies in difficulty at the border pushed to the side, sent away or instructed to dump their products on the verge of the motorway to travel empty,” he said. “An ‘I’m alright, Jack’ approach where large corporates get to barge past and queue-jump sounds distinctly un-British and unfair — and does not solve the problem.”
The DfT declined to comment on the documents but a spokesperson said that “If hauliers have the correct documentation, there should be limited disruption at the border”.
The spokesperson added: “We have implemented a major campaign to ensure hauliers can take action to get ready and are able to operate and that trade can continue to move as freely as possible between the UK and Europe after Brexit.”
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