“A year after the oven ready deal, we have more of a cold turkey”- PAC Chair
2 December 2020
UK Government still “taking limited responsibility” for Brexit readiness with 4 weeks to go and “risk of serious disruption and delay” at Channel crossings.
Four and a half years after the Brexit vote, with preparations for EU exit costing £4.4bn so far and involving 22,000 civil servants - and many more paid consultants - the UK still faces “the risk of serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings” when the transition period ends in 4 weeks.
In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee says there are still significant risks to the country being ready for the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, but government still only seems to be taking limited responsibility for that readiness.
In 12 reports on preparations for EU exit since the 2016 vote, the PAC has repeatedly raised concerns about the readiness of key border systems and been assured that they are on track or that delays are being managed. And yet, with a few weeks to go, border systems remain in development and plans for managing disruption or prioritisation of key goods are unclear.
The impact of the summer 2019 ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign - which cost £46 million before it was abandoned when an extension was agreed - is unclear, and the government is still not doing enough to ensure businesses and citizens are ready for the end of the transition period. A recent government survey showed 36% of SMEs still expect the transition period to be extended again, and the Cabinet Office admitted it has no knowledge of how many of the remaining 64% of small and medium sized British businesses will actually be ready.
Gaps in planning
EU exit and the Covid-19 response have shown up critical gaps in the civil service’s approach to planning, particularly for unexpected events or undesired outcomes. The Cabinet Office keeps a national risk register, with input from across government and particularly the Treasury, but recent events have shown up the limitations in this crucial governance system.
Ministers specifically limited the amount of contingency planning the civil service was to carry out ahead of the EU exit referendum in 2016. This meant Government only began to formulate policy, negotiating positions and preparations after the vote. In its programme of work on Covid-19 the Committee uncovered the shocking lack of economic planning for a pandemic, even though that risk has been on Government’s “most likely” list for years.
Government continues to spend too much on consultants to undertake work that could be better done by civil servants, and in so doing does not utilise or develop skills and experience in-house, risking further, ongoing waste of taxpayers’ money. The Committee has also repeatedly raised concerns about government’s grip on cross-government spending and use of consultants, and action in these areas is still too slow.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:
“Pretending that things you don’t want to happen are not going to happen is not a recipe for government, it is a recipe for disaster.
“We’re paying for that approach in the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and can only hope that we are not now facing another catastrophe, at the border in 4 weeks’ time. But after 12 PAC reports full of warnings since the Brexit vote, the evidence suggests that come January 1st we face serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings that deliver a majority of our fresh food supplies.
“The lack of definite next steps and inability to secure a deal adds to the challenge. A year after the oven ready deal, we have more of a cold turkey and businesses and consumers do not know what to be prepared for.”