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Departments have no clear plan in face of impossible challenge

4 May 2018

The Public Accounts Committee report says preparations for Brexit are being hampered by uncertainty over UK's future relationship with the EU.

Preparations being hampered by the pervasive uncertainty

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) face an unprecedented challenge in preparing for Brexit.

Their preparations, however, are being hampered by the pervasive uncertainty about the UK's future relationship with the EU, which leaves not only departments but also businesses in the dark about exactly what they need to do to prepare.

This means that Defra, in particular, is having to work up options for the three different scenarios—deal, no deal or transition. This is time consuming and costly. It also has to navigate new legislation and major IT programmes in very short time.

Concern over realism of Departments' plans

At the time of our evidence session, less than a month before the start of the 2018–19 financial year, funding for departments' EU Exit programmes had not yet been confirmed. This slow decision-making on the part of HM Treasury stands in the way of effective government preparation.

We are concerned about how realistic the departments' plans for Brexit are, especially where new IT systems are required. But both departments appear optimistic that they can deliver what's required to be ready for March 2019, whatever the outcome of the negotiations.

There is a lot at stake—a functioning trade policy is vital and if the UK leaves the single market and customs union there need to be clear alternatives in place or business and the economy will suffer.

DIT appears to have adopted a free trade policy but business needs time to adapt and there are still many uncertainties with no clear timetable for changes. Defra has said it will fall back on to manual systems as it seeks to deliver all that it needs to for Brexit, but this could impede or at least slow down imports and exports causing severe delays at the border.

Both departments have an impossible challenge and don't have a clear plan of top priorities. They must be clear about what they will not be delivering as a result of Brexit.

Chair's comments

Comment from Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP: 

"Our committee has repeatedly raised concerns about Government's preparedness for life outside the EU. The clock is ticking and there is still no clarity about what Brexit will mean in practice.

Against this backdrop, Government departments must deliver fit-for-purpose systems and ways of working, in tandem with managing what in some cases is already a complex and ambitious programme of work.

As our new report again makes clear, departments are under extreme pressure. If Parliament is to hold them to account then it is vital that Government is as transparent as possible on the progress being made.

The correspondence we are publishing today is the most comprehensive picture yet of the breadth of the challenge to be tackled.

Defra alone has 64 active workstreams, up from 43 at the time we took evidence in March. DIT, formed in direct response to the EU referendum result, has mission-critical responsibilities. All departments have much to do.

But we need to examine the substance of these work plans and I am not convinced that more information from across Government cannot be provided now.

The recent National Audit Office report on Brexit and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, for example, offers greater detail on workstreams than DExEU has seen fit to provide in its letter. 

On behalf of taxpayers we will continue to press for that detail."

Further information

Image: Dave Kellam