Plans to force British and international lorry drivers to obtain an “access permit” to drive into Kent next year have caused uproar after they were outlined to MPs by Michael Gove, the cabinet minister responsible for Brexit implementation.
Under the scheme, announced by Mr Gove on Wednesday, drivers will be tracked by number-plate recognition technology and forced to pay spot-fines of £300 if found to be travelling without the correct customs documentation.
The measures are designed to avoid clogging the roads around the Kent Channel ports of Dover and Folkestone when customs controls are reimposed on the UK’s border with Europe at the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021.
Mr Gove warned that queues of up to 7,000 trucks could form in Kent if business did not do more to prepare for the new border, leading to a furious backlash from the customs industry, which blamed the government for failing to provide adequate guidance and ready new IT systems.
Among the new systems is a SmartFreight web portal that will be used to screen drivers to ensure they are ready for the border.
“We want to make sure that people use a relatively simple process in order to get what will become known as a Kent Access Permit, which means that they can then proceed smoothly through Kent,” said Mr Gove.
He added the permits would be enforced through “policing, ANPR cameras and other means” to ensure that Kent was not overwhelmed by thousands of lorries with incorrect documentation.
The announcement was greeted with dismay in Westminster. Labour’s Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: “It is incredible that ministers are only now admitting to their plans to arrest British truckers for entering Kent without new travel passports.”
One Tory MP concerned at the plans said: “not satisfied with a dodgy border in Ireland, we’re now getting one in England”.
Damian Green, the Tory MP for Ashford where the government is building a 10,000-vehicle lorry park, said motorway logjams would make daily life “intolerable” for his constituents. “It is really important that the border runs smoothly immediately after the end of the transition,” he said.
An industry insider who has seen a test version of the SmartFreight system, said that drivers were asked to provide “yes” or “no” answers to a series of simple questions about whether they had correct documentation, before receiving a red, amber or green permit to proceed.
“It’s basically an ‘honesty box’ system. It’s not actually connected to anything in terms of customs systems,” the insider explained.
Kent Police said it was continuing to engage with the government on how the permits regime would be enforced.
The permit system was one part of what Whitehall officials called a “shock and awe” statement marking 100 days until the new border comes into force, designed to galvanise business into preparing for the new checks.
Mr Gove said that government surveys showed that less than a quarter of businesses were “fully ready”, despite the government offering more than £80m in grants to increase the capacity of the customs brokerage industry.
“The consequences of a lack of business preparedness will be not just economic opportunities missed for those companies who don’t prepare but, potentially, much wider disruption,” the Cabinet Office minister said.
Without action, the government estimates that freight flows across the Dover-Calais short strait which handles up to 10,000 trucks a day could fall by up to 80 per cent at the peak of disruption which could last up to three months.
But the freight industry reacted angrily to the suggestion that they were responsible for the lack of preparedness, and accused the government of failing to ready critical IT systems and provide other basic information on border operations.
Robert Keen, the director-general of the British International Freight Association, which represents the UK customs brokerage industry, warned the government not to “start pointing the finger of blame” when it had “failed to provide all of the tools” to enable businesses to meet the challenge.
Both SmartFreight and the new Goods Vehicle Movement System (GVMS) for preregistering exports to the EU are still only in the testing phase, but the government has promised they will be ready in a beta version by October.
Industry has also not received detailed guidance on how to apply for duty deferment accounts and simplified customs procedures, or how planned inland customs parks will operate. On the training of up to 50,000 new customs officers industry estimates will be needed to handle the increased paperwork, Mr Gove declined three times on Wednesday to say how many had actually been trained.
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association said: “The warnings of the industry have not been heeded and the support we asked for has not been provided.”