Background to the report

The United Kingdom’s (UK’s) decision to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016 changed how goods are traded across the border between the UK and the EU. This has included the requirement for the introduction of customs and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls.

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Due to the UK government’s political and constitutional responsibilities under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the UK government has put in place a different set of trading arrangements for moving goods into and out of Northern Ireland (NI) from those in the rest of the UK.

Since 2016, the National Audit Office has reported six times on the management of the UK border, most recently in November 2021. In the period since we last reported, the government has introduced some new import controls and set out its timetable for the introduction of most of the remainder, and has updated arrangements for the movement of goods into and out of NI through the Windsor Framework and the Safeguarding the Union Command Paper.

It has also been undertaking work to improve the functioning of the border in the longer term. This is in line with the government’s 2025 UK Border Strategy, which set out its vision for the UK border to have “the world’s most effective border that creates prosperity and enhances security for a global United Kingdom.”

Scope of the report

This report brings together information on the impact and cost of new arrangements, and on future risks and opportunities, and examines whether the government is on course to implement an efficient and effective trade border. It focuses primarily on the work of UK government departments with significant responsibilities at the border. This includes the Cabinet Office, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Home Office.

Most of the arrangements required to implement new border controls, and the specific arrangements relating to the movement of goods in and out of Northern Ireland, are the responsibility of the UK government. However, SPS controls are a devolved responsibility in NI, Scotland and Wales.

We cover devolved responsibilities only where the UK government and the devolved administrations need to work together to implement new arrangements.

This report focuses on the movement of goods across the border.

It covers:

  • the operation of the border since the end of the transition period in December 2020 (Part One)
  • the introduction of a full border control regime (Part Two)
  • future risks, challenges and opportunities relating to the management of the border (Part Three)
  • the implementation of arrangements relating to Northern Ireland (Part Four). This report is based on information available up to April 2024. We do not evaluate the implementation of controls introduced from 30 April 2024.

Video summary


Leaving the EU customs union and single market created large-scale change in arrangements for the movement of goods across the UK border. More than three years after the end of the transition period, full import controls are still not in place. In addition, the model’s operation is still to be tested and the government may not be able to apply controls consistently as the controls are phased in.

The government’s new border target operating model should reduce costs to traders in comparison to its initial plans. However, repeated delays in implementing controls have meant ongoing uncertainty and an increase in risk, and the government and border stakeholders have also incurred unnecessary costs. This could have been avoided if the government had established a clearer vision of how the border should operate from the start, and had taken a more strategic and planned approach to implementation.

The government’s 2025 UK Border Strategy includes ambitious plans to use technology and data to facilitate the passage of legitimate trade, while still identifying people and goods at risk. Most stakeholders agree with this overall approach. However, there is no timetable for achieving these ambitions, and the extended phasing of the introduction of full import controls has meant slower progress on other elements of the Strategy.

It is a considerable challenge to manage several large programmes involving multiple departments and external stakeholders, and we have highlighted the delivery risks. To improve its chances of success, the government needs strong mechanisms for delivery and accountability, a more realistic approach to digital transformation, and the means to assess and report on border performance to enable improvement over time.

The UK government and the EU have agreed arrangements to simplify the movement of goods from GB to NI, and the UK government and NI authorities are working to implement these. However, some details remain to be confirmed, including the operational implications of the government’s recent Safeguarding the Union Command Paper. If NI is to benefit from its unique position, the UK government must provide the clarity required to give businesses the confidence to invest in and trade with NI, and provide sufficient support to the Northern Ireland Civil Service to help it effectively enact its new responsibilities.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (20 May 2024)

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