Defra faces a huge challenge to get ready for Brexit
From its IT systems to new border checks, Defra must be prepared for EU exit day – or we risk logjams at Britain’s ports and disruption to the agri-food and chemical industries, warns PAC chair Meg Hillier
The Public Accounts Committee has been busy looking into how government departments are planning for Brexit. We have raised a number of concerns across departments about recruitment, and systems which need to change to deal with the post-Brexit era. We have also challenged departments about which projects will be delayed or cancelled as resources are moved to dealing with leaving the EU.
Our recent report on preparations by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) for Brexit looks at the costs, but also how well they are preparing for the challenges coming down the line.
Both departments are particularly affected by Brexit. Defra alone has 64 of the government’s 325 workstreams, up from 43 when permanent secretary Claire Moriarty appeared before us in March. Around 80% of the department’s existing work is EU related, so it has a huge challenge in shaping and delivering its work in the post-Brexit world.
And DIT was created as a result of the referendum vote, which means it has to recruit staff and develop a policy before it can step up to deliver trade negotiations.
Like all government departments, DIT and Defra are planning for three possible options: a no-deal exit from the EU; exit with a deal, and a transition period before exit. For the last two of these, the detail of the final agreement is material in the final plans. There is the added complication of the primary legislation needed to effect some of the changes, which is already much delayed.
Defra has a number of responsibilities at the border which have a particular urgency. Everything from checking food, animals and chemicals being imported falls under Defra. To deliver this, it needs new IT systems which, given past failures, is a real concern. And a delay in one area of border control can have a huge knock-on effect. So a longer queue because of more stringent immigration checks, for example, could lead to food and medicines going past their safe usage dates.
Added to this is the infrastructure needed to carry out more stringent border checks, particularly at ferry ports where space is severely constrained.
Defra has at least identified some projects which it will not be able to deliver while dealing with Brexit. These include descoping other programmes and continuing, for example, with paper-based systems to give them the space and time to deliver more urgent programmes. But this also raises concerns about the longer-term cost of delivering business as usual. It is right and rational to delay work that can be delayed, but it is storing up a backlog of work that will still need to be addressed in the not too distant future.
As part of its remit, DIT needs to work with businesses to help them prepare, but we are concerned this isn’t happening. Business input at an early stage is vital to shaping any future trade policies.
Separately, it has taken the committee a while to secure proper information about how the government is preparing for Brexit. Transparency of the government’s preparations is important, both for parliament to scrutinise and for the public to see what is being done. It was reluctant but eventually relented after the Public Accounts Committee put on the pressure
One of our overriding concerns as a committee is the uncertainly about what the future costs will be of our leaving the EU.
The government’s estimate of the EU financial settlement is £35-£39bn, but this only covers the costs of political exit. The final bill will also include the costs of new systems; the knock-on costs for business compliance and the need to replicate a number of vital regulatory systems.
Government and the civil service face a huge challenge to deliver on Brexit. We need a clearer outline from government about the potential costs, the work that will have to be delayed as a result and what the top priorities are. The House of Commons is expected to vote on the final deal in November. We need clearer information by then.
Meg Hillier is Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and chair of the Public Accounts Committee
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