September 26, 2019 / 3:25 PM / 22 days ago

UK customs says staff shortage won't mean Brexit anarchy; France says 'smart border' ready

PARIS (Reuters) - Britain does not have enough customs agents to cope with the additional stresses of a no-deal Brexit, one of the officials responsible for infrastructure at its border with the EU said on Thursday, though she dismissed fears of “anarchy in the UK”.

FILE PHOTO: A line of lorries is seen during a trial between disused Manston Airport and the Port of Dover of how road will cope in case of a "no-deal" Brexit, Kent, Britain January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Just weeks before Britain is due to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, there is still no deal in place to ensure smooth trade with the bloc following Brexit.

Speaking in Paris, revenue and customs agency (HMRC) official Margaret Whitby said HMRC believed the infrastructure and IT systems were in place to ensure no extra checks would be needed on the 5 million trucks a year that cross the English Channel and North Sea providing customs declarations were lodged in advance.

But she acknowledged that half of British businesses that trade with the EU were not ready for an Oct. 31 Brexit and that there would be tailbacks at ports if trucks arrived without the correct customs documentation.

“We recognise in the UK that we don’t have enough customs agents at the moment to cover the anticipated need,” Whitby told a forum for French businesses entitled ‘Brexit - Get Ready!’.

Nonetheless, having walked on stage to a Sex Pistols soundtrack, Whitby quipped: “There will be no anarchy in the UK if we leave the EU without a deal on October 31.”

Britain was implementing traffic management systems and setting up sites across Kent in the southeast where transit documents can be processed ahead of arrival at the port of Dover or the Eurotunnel rail crossing.

There will also be “pop-up” sites at gas pump stations across Britain where truckers can check their documentation is in order, Whitby said.

“SMART BORDER”

Her counterpart at the French customs office said France had installed a computerised “smart border” and that 500 newly hired agents would be ready on Day 1 of Brexit, of a recruitment drive for 700 new customs workers.

Drivers coming into France who have pre-lodged their export requests with the French authorities online will have a barcode scanned in say, Dover, and their number plates automatically read by cameras before a risk assessment is made while they cross the Channel, Violaine Colent said.

During the journey, drivers will be told whether they can drive off freely through a ‘green lane’ on arrival on French soil, or if they’ll be directed to an “orange lane” for further checks.

“We managed to adapt our infrastructure, we have created new offices in Calais and Dunkirk that are open 24/7 and can adjust to the flows of international trade,” Colent told the conference.

Rehearsals being carried out this month by French agents on each cross-channel route were going “quite well”, she said.

She said the two customs agencies could not hold direct talks to coordinate their planning while Brexit negotiations were ongoing.

“I don’t know the exact level of preparation in Britain,” she said when asked if she believed Britain was ready at its borders.

Reporting by Richard Lough and Michel Rose; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Catherine Evans

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