LONDON — Senior U.K. ministers have been drafted into a new cross-government team tasked with guaranteeing the smooth-running of the U.K. border after Brexit.
The Inter-Ministerial Group on Borders, which was formed with minimal public disclosure earlier this year, consists of secretaries of state and ministers from four government departments key to the functioning of the border for trade, immigration and transportation.
David Daviss Department for Exiting the European Union, the Home Office, the Department for Transport and Michael Goves Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are represented on the group.
According to a government official familiar with the group, its membership is “flexible,” with secretaries of state or ministers from the four departments attending depending on availability.
The Cabinet Office confirmed its existence to POLITICO, following repeated enquiries, after it was referred to in a letter sent by Jon Thompson, chief executive of U.K. tax authority Her Majestys Revenue and Customs, to a parliamentary committee in March.
The government has also set up a separate ministerial group on Northern Ireland.
Responding to criticisms from the House of Commons public accounts committee that the government had not established “clear leadership and accountability” for managing the post-Brexit border, Thompson wrote “a new ministerial group is being established with accountability for ensuring new border arrangements are implemented effectively.”
Border arrangements for trade and migration from the EU are set to be overhauled after Brexit.
While a transition period has been provisionally agreed that would mean no change at the border until December 2020, the inter-ministerial group is also required to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, which would require new border systems from the day after the U.K.s exit day on 29 March 2019.
This so-called “cliff edge” Brexit scenario has prompted fears of major disruption at the border, particularly to trade, as all imports and exports to and from the EU would overnight become subject to much more stringent customs checks.
“Behind the scenes, they appear to be pulling the strings on critical parts of Brexit” — Joe Owen, associate director at the Institute for Government think-tank
The lack of representation of the Northern Ireland Office on the border ministerial group suggests its focus is the U.K.s sea borders, rather than its land border with the Republic of Ireland. The government has also set up a separate ministerial group on Northern Ireland.
The formation of inter-ministerial groups — which are distinct from Cabinet sub-committees such as the Brexit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) sub-committee, better known as Theresa Mays Brexit “war Cabinet” — has raised eyebrows among some policy analysts.
While lists of Cabinet sub-committees and their membership are regularly published by the government, no such transparency applies to inter-ministerial groups and, according to Joe Owen, associate director at the independent Institute for Government think-tank, and need no formal minutes or other transparency measures.
“These groups exist outside formal structures for inter-ministerial working,” Owen said. “Theres no secretariat provided by the Cabinet Office, theres no publicly available information on what they do or who sits on them. But, behind the scenes, they appear to be pulling the strings on critical parts of Brexit.”