Hauliers will face increased fines and civilian traffic officers will be granted new powers in the event of a no-deal Brexit under government plans to try and avoid debilitating customs delays at Dover.
Sky News understands the proposals, set out in a Department of Transport consultation, will see Highways England Traffic Officers (TOs) given the power to demand and check drivers’ documentation for the first time.
TOs will also work with police to levy new increased fines, perhaps as high as £300, on drivers who ignore orders to take an alternative route or head to holding areas.
Currently TOs have powers to stop and redirect traffic but they cannot search vehicles or issue penalty notices.
The proposals were circulated to industry groups and public bodies including Kent County Council this week as part of what the DfT calls a “stakeholder engagement”.
The consultation proposes legislation to support Operation Brock, the no-deal contingency plan to deal with disruption on the M20 leading to Dover.
The consultation has not been made public and Sky News understands some of those consulted have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of taking part. Parties have two weeks to respond.
Under the plans TOs would stop lorries some distance from Dover to check paperwork.
Drivers will be obliged to comply with their requests, and those with the correct paperwork will be given a permit to proceed towards Dover.
Those without the right paperwork will be ordered off the road and not allowed through until they have the correct documents.
The proposals come after new Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “turbocharge” no-deal planning, with daily meetings of Cabinet ministers chaired by Michael Gove beginning this week.
Defending the proposals, the new transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told Sky News the powers were important and proportionate: “We’re taking all the necessary steps including some of these extra powers to make sure that goods carry on flowing.
“This is what people expect a responsible government to do under the circumstances.”
“We are going to make sure that we leave on the 31st October, we are going to make sure that people are as ready as they possibly can be. I can’t rule out that there’ll be some disruption in the process of making that happen, but I’m pretty certain that we will get this in a place where goods will carry on flowing.”
Haulage organisations gave a cautious response to the proposals.
“We have been told fines will only happen if operators disobey the rules. We do need clarity on what those rules are,” said Rod McKenzie, spokesman for the Road Haulage Association.
“The government appears to be trying to bring some discipline to what has been, up to now, a chaotic and confusing system in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“We do believe that hauliers and everyone involved in the logistics business needs to be fully prepared for unfamiliar customs and borders paperwork… but they do need to be told urgently what is required from them and that has not yet happened.”
The government has predicted no-deal delays at Dover could last for up to six months, with huge traffic jams building on the M20 as a result of new procedures at the border.
Around 10,000 lorries pass through Dover every day and port authorities have warned that additional checks of just two minutes could lead to a 17-mile tailback on the M20.
Operation Brock will see the coast-bound carriageway of the motorway reserved for freight heading to Dover, with other traffic in a contraflow on the other side.
Manston Airfield near Ramsgate will be used as a lorry park for up to 6,500 vehicles.
Industry lawyers told Sky News that the proposals would represent a significant increase in powers for Highways England, and could place staff in conflict with hauliers.
“If the proposal is to give Highways England the power to levy enforcement measures that would be quite scary,” said Simon Clarke, a barrister and partner at freight specialist lawyers Smith Bowyer Clarke.
“Highways England has no blanket powers at the moment to stop and penalise drivers, they are road safety officers.
“This could be a real issue particularly with overseas drivers, who may not appreciate the new powers. Turning Highways England into quasi-police officers, particularly in situations where there may be conflict, is asking an awful lot of them.”
The government has also tendered contracts worth £300m for additional ferry, rail and air freight capacity in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It comes after it awarded such a contract earlier this year to a company that didn’t have any ships.
Asked if he could give a guarantee that anyone who wins a contract will have the ferries they need, the new transport secretary told Sky News: “Yes I can actually, one of the things we’ve done is actually learn from that experience.”