There won’t be any customs checks at Dover after the UK leaves the EU, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has insisted as he dismissed warnings of 30 mile tailbacks after Brexit.
Physical checks on lorries after March 2019 would be “utterly unrealistic,” he told the BBC’s Question Time.
Trade would be managed electronically to allow “seamless” movement, he said.
But Labour MP Chuka Umunna suggested a lack of checks risked “giving smugglers a free hand”.
The UK currently has a free-flowing border in Kent where lorries travelling within the EU do not complete customs declarations and passport checks are minimal.
Researchers estimate it takes an average of about two minutes for each vehicle at Dover to be processed.
There have been warnings that if additional customs checks are imposed after the UK leaves on 29 March 2019, it will add about ten miles to the queues at peak times for every additional minute’s worth of checks.
A study by Imperial College London earlier this week found that two extra minutes of checks on vehicles could more than triple the existing queues, potentially leading to motorway tailbacks up to 29 miles long.
But Mr Grayling said it was “absolutely clear” that this “cannot happen”.
“We will maintain a free flowing border at Dover – we will not impose checks in the port. We don’t check lorries now – we’re not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future.
“The only reason we would have queues at the border is if we put in place restrictions that created those queues – we are not going to do that.”
The government has said leaving the EU will allow the UK to take back control of its borders.
The UK is set to the leave the customs union, but ministers are hoping to negotiate a new customs partnership with the EU as part of a transition arrangement likely to last about two years after the UK’s official exit from the union next March.
Mr Grayling said goods moved seamlessly across national borders elsewhere in the world and there was no reason this would not happen after Brexit.
“Go to our ports on the east coast that take goods from outside the European Union where goods…depart pretty much as soon as they arrive. That is what is going to happen.
“We will manage trade electronically. Trucks will move through the border without stopping. We will manage them electronically. In the way it happens between Canada and the US.”
Under the terms of the Le Touquet agreement, in which juxtaposed border and immigration controls are in force on either side of the Channel, France has the power to carry out checks on outbound vehicles at Dover.
When France increased security checks in the summer of 2016, in the wake of a series of terror attacks in the country, it led to days of lengthy queues on the roads approaching the port as staff shortages meant checks on passenger coaches were taking 40 minutes.
Former shadow minister Chuka Umunna, a member of the cross-party anti-Brexit campaign group Open Britain, said the UK would almost certainly be legally obliged to carry out some form of checks once it left the EU.
If the UK did not enforce international law, the MP said it would send a terrible signal to countries that it hoped to do trade deals with.
“What would it mean for safety and security?” he added. “The prospect of leaving the EU has already opened up opportunities for smugglers to make money out of differing tax and duty rates: making it clear we won’t even try to enforce the law threatens to give smugglers a free hand.”
According to Sky News, logistics companies which operate UK borders have been asked to sign “non-disclosure agreements” as part of a government information-gathering exercise on Brexit.
It reported individual firms and trade bodies have been sworn to secrecy about conversations with officials about the impact on freight traffic if there is no Brexit agreement as well as other possible scenarios.
The Department for Exiting the EU said while a deal was “by far and away the highest probability”, it made sense to prepare for all possible outcomes.