Ministers' 'excessive secrecy' has blocked food and chemical firms' Brexit preparations, say MPs
Businesses who trade in food, chemical and animal products have been held back in their Brexit preparations because of “excessive secrecy at the centre of government”, MPs have said.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) use of non-disclosure agreements had left smaller firms who trade in such products “unaware and ill-prepared” of ministers' proposals compared to big industry bodies.
And they pointed the finger at the Brexit department for keeping small and medium-sized enterprises "in the dark" .
The cross-party group of MPs said the use of the gagging clauses had come despite Defra admitting to the committee that it had asked officials in Department for Exiting the European Union "many times for permission to communicate more freely" in order to get information out.
The scathing report came as Theresa May summoned ministers for an emergency Cabinet meeting to approve a draft Brexit agreement she has struck with Brussels.
But the MPs say the situation facing the department’s main stakeholders has changed very little in the last six months, and warn that Defra still needs to boost its number of full-time vets by more than 50 to sign off health certificates for animals to be exported without adding to exporters’ costs.
They warn that there there is now a risk of UK exports of animals and animal products being delayed at borders because of a shortage of vets if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
The MPs cite warnings from the government’s own spending watchdog which has said Defra’s progress on health certificates has been held back by ministers in the Brexit department.
'LONG WAY FROM BEING READY'
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “Brexit looms but the Department for Environment, Food & 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 Labour MP added: “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.”
The PAC's report warns that Defra faces “enormous challenges” because it still does not know what Brexit outcome it is preparing for, with “fundamental issues” on food, chemical and animal importers and exporters yet to be resolved.
And it says says that ministers are too complacent about the levels of disruption to trade that could be faced - with just three quarters of the 86 legal changes that will be needed after Brexit either fully drafted or near completion.
They warn that rushing through the rest of those statutory instruments could undermine their quality.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We do not accept the PAC’s conclusions which fail to accurately reflect Defra’s preparations for leaving the EU.
“The PAC have ignored key findings from the National Audit Office, which found that ‘Defra has achieved a great deal and to a very demanding timescale’.
“In producing this one-sided report, the PAC have failed to acknowledge the substantial progress we have made in replacing EU functions, hiring key staff and building new IT systems.”