Establishing a new customs system for the UK after Brexit could take up to five years, according to government papers.
Documents sent to businesses as part of a consultation over the government’s post-Brexit customs model reveal it is likely to take between three and five years to put in systems in place.
The upper end is more than double the two-and-a-years until the end of the planned Brexit transition period, meaning the UK could potentially be without any customs arrangements for years.
And Sky News has reported that a number of businesses have told ministers it would actually take 10 years to create a computer system that could be used by all small and medium businesses that currently operate across the UK-EU border.
The channel has reported that detailed papers were circulated to 10 key business representatives at a meeting at the Cabinet Office last month at which Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington, international trade secretary Liam Fox, environment secretary Michael Gove, business secretary Greg Clark and Theresa May’s Europe adviser Olly Robbins were present.
Businesses represented included consumer company Diageo, retailers Tesco and Asos, manufacturers BMW, GE, GSK and logistics company UPS as well as trade bodies for ports and manufacturers and the British Chambers of Commerce.
A source told Sky News that “five years is incredibly optimistic, and government was told very firmly that it would take a decade or more to develop a system that could work in particular for all the small and medium sized businesses”.
Ministers were told that smaller businesses would be unable to adapt to a new model and were “increasingly terrified”.
Labour Virendra Sharma MP, a champion of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign group, said: “The government continues to cover its mistakes in darkness. Well aware of the damage to businesses – especially small ones – Theresa May ploughs on with her harsh Brexit.
“This country has a proud history of sensible decision-making, and so it would be entirely out of character to carry on into the Brexit abyss. Five years to develop the primary customs systems needed, and 10 years to build one that could well still hurt entrepreneurs and, at best, would do what our current system does.
“This plan is a joke, this government is a joke and Brexit is a joke.”