Defra still faces enormous Brexit challenges, warns Committee

By agency reporter
November 15, 2018

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the Department) faces enormous challenges in the lead-up to EU Exit and, with the deadline of 29 March 2019 looming, still does not know which scenario it is preparing for.

There is a high level of risk in the Department’s portfolio, says the Committee, with many of its plans dependent on co-operation from other departments, the devolved administrations and agencies and the goodwill of EU member states. 

The Department is too complacent about the levels of disruption or interruption to trade that may be faced. Fundamental issues for food, chemical and animal importers and exporters are yet to be resolved.

Many businesses have not been given detailed advice on what is required by EU Exit, as the Department has had very limited engagement with stakeholders until recently.

Six months since the PAC last reported in May 2018, the situation for the Department’s stakeholders has changed very little, as the Department’s preparation for EU Exit continues to be complicated by its need to work on a range of solutions for different scenarios.

It has now established a new directorate for business readiness and engagement but its focus has been on industry and representative groups which means that individual businesses and organisations, in particular SMEs, remain unaware and ill-prepared.

This is all too little, too late says the PAC, and it is particularly concerning that the Department’s ability to impart specific information has been hampered by excessive secrecy at the centre of government and continuing uncertainty over the outcome of the negotiations.

The Department has made good progress in drafting the 86 statutory instruments it must prepare, with three-quarters of them either fully drafted or near completion. But in its efforts to rush through the drafting, the Committe remains concerned about risks to quality.

The amount of parliamentary time that these, and those of other departments, will require is daunting. The Cabinet Office needs to ensure that those of the highest significance across government receive greatest priority but that all receive adequate parliamentary scrutiny ahead of EU Exit.

With the pace at which new legislation will have to be agreed, the Committee is seriously concerned about the level of scrutiny.

The Committe says: "We need the Department to be clear about the impact of not being able to make the necessary legal changes in time. Muddling through in the hope of goodwill is highly risky and means many businesses are left not knowing what the future will bring."

The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, said, "Brexit looms but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is a long way from being ready.

"In the continued uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, Defra’s civil servants must prepare for multiple and in some cases ill-defined scenarios.

"Anyone working in the dark is prone to stumble but in Defra’s case I am concerned that the Department has lost sight of its priorities. The risks associated with ‘no-deal’ in particular are severe, and it is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare.

"Brexit border planning is not sufficiently developed, six critical IT systems are still to be tested and there is a risk that in the Department’s rush to prepare necessary legislation, the quality of that legislation will suffer.

"Defra is up against it but there is more it must do to assure Parliament, businesses and the wider public that it has a firm grip on its responsibilities."

* Read Defra’s progress towards Brexit here

* Public Accounts Committee https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-accounts-committee/

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