Britain may be unable to prevent EU fishermen from entering UK waters illegally in the event of a no-deal Brexit because there are not enough vessels to police the seas, an internal government email has revealed.
The detail was included in an email, which was prepared by officials in the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs and seen by Sky News.
The admission could also leave the country more exposed to terrorism, smuggling and conflicts over fish stocks, experts have warned.
It states there is “a lot of uncertainty” about whether the country will be able to police the seas because Britain only has “12 vessels that need to monitor a space three times the size of the surface area of the UK”, the document reveals.
It adds: “While our public position on this wider issue is already clear and widely communicated, in that post-Brexit we will be an independent coastal state with control of our waters, both Policy [officials] and MOD [officials] have indicated we are not on an overly strong footing to get ahead of the potential claims that could arise from this story.”
The admission has prompted questions about how prepared the UK is to leave the EU without a deal, after Boris Johnson wrote to all civil servants calling on them to making planning for such an eventuality “a top priority”.
It has also led to questions about whether the country could face an increased risk of terrorism, people smuggling, illegal immigration and conflict.
Former First Sea Admiral Lord West said: “We do not have enough ships to a protect our fishing zones should we suddenly have a disagreement with the EU about who is fishing where [after we leave] – we just don’t have enough ships.
“When you include the job of stopping illegal immigrants, where the navy needs to help because there aren’t enough cutters, and smuggling, terrorists and so on, we have not got enough vessels in all the agencies to ensure the safety and security of our territorial seas and the protection of our fishing zones.”
Questions have also been raised about the number of enforcement officers operating to ensure UK fishing waters are protected.
On this the document notes: “As part of preparations for leaving on the 31 October, Marine Management Organisation (MMO) has increased its enforcement capability.
“This includes hiring additional enforcement officers, taking the current number of Warranted Marine Officers to 78 with additional officers undergoing enforcement training. MMO is also working with the Marine and Coastguard Agency to increase aerial surveillance.”
But experts warned that even with extra enforcement teams, this would not be enough to protect British fishermen because of the shortage of vessels.
A government spokesperson said: “Unfortunately this evening an internal email was inadvertently sent outside of Defra. Handling emails allow officials to examine the veracity and details of media enquiries.
“Britain is leaving the EU on Oct 31st with or without a deal. We are confident that we will have the ships and the expertise we need to properly enforce security in UK waters.”
A spokesman for Fishing for Leave said: “We’ve got a legal duty to enforce it because we don’t want people to have a free for all, it’s the deterrent factor, you come in and it will be on your own head – we need to clobber them like the Norwegians do.
“We could do that if the political will is there and that’s for Boris Johnson to prove his Churchillian mettle and deploy the assets we have got to do it and that will be an acid test of Brexit; are the political class going to look after Britain’s greatest natural resource or is the British government going to ignore international law and let them have a free for all?
“It’s not just up to Britain to protect and enforce sustainability and fishing law, it’s up to the EU too.”