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Brexit: Risky and rushed activity must not become ‘new normal'

12 March 2019

Report summary

Departments face an unprecedented challenge in preparing for the UK's exit from the European Union, especially with the continuing political uncertainty over the final outcome.

Despite raising our concerns throughout 2018, departments have continued to struggle to prepare should the UK leave the EU without a deal. We are disappointed to see that some of our early concerns have now been realised.

The Department for Transport has failed to make timely preparations to procure the additional freight capacity needed to transport critical goods.  Despite being aware that the ferry industry would need time to put in place additional capacity, the Department did not start serious preparations to procure this additional capacity until September 2018, just six months before the UK is due to leave the EU.

The Department's procurement approach has been rushed and risky and preparations have been conducted in secrecy with inadequate stakeholder engagement.

Our inquiry has thrown up that the Department did not have any written assurance that Seaborne Freight had a shipping partner until after the contract was agreed and then signed.

The Department for Transport has been also over-optimistic about how much capacity it could secure and has ultimately failed to deliver the freight capacity it required. This was in part because of the late decision to procure the capacity and the unusual and secretive approach to procurement.

Time has now run out to procure significant additional capacity by other means. This has implications for securing the flow of priority goods.

While the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asserts that the impact on food supplies will not lead to shortages, we are concerned this is another example of over-optimism.

We are unconvinced that the departments are prepared for the practical challenges that no deal would bring, particularly in managing the flow of priority goods.

Chair's comments

“My Committee's work in this Parliament has laid bare the struggles Government departments have faced in preparing for a potential no-deal Brexit.

“It is critical that the approach to decision-taking adopted in response to what are unprecedented challenges does not embed itself as the ‘new normal'.

“Taxpayers' money must not be risked by business-as-usual done on the fly. Nor should transparency be sacrificed at the whim of Government.

“The use of confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements during Brexit preparations has come at the expense of proper engagement with stakeholders, and deprived Parliament and the public of information they need to hold Government to account.

“It is not clear, for example, what benefits the Government's £33 million settlement with Eurotunnel will secure for the UK.

“Nor is it clear over what timescale the benefits will be delivered, how they will be measured, or if the Government tested whether settling with Eurotunnel was the best method of securing them.

“This is not a sustainable approach. In the event of Brexit, and the longer-term challenges this presents, it is vital that taxpayers can have confidence their money is being spent wisely and with due consideration for the risks involved.

“Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, the Whitehall machinery must reflect on the activity of recent months and years and use what it has learned to drive real improvements.”

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