Defra has been accused of still not knowing which scenario it is preparing for as the March 29 EU Exit deadline gets closer.
The department took a battering from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Report 2017-19 which warned it was ‘too complacent’ about potential disruption or interruption to trade.
It also raised concerns over the level of scrutiny in new legislation with calls on the department to be clear about the impact of not being able to make the necessary legal changes in time.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “Brexit looms but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is a long way from being ready.
“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.”
Ms Hillier went on to suggest the risks associated with a ‘no-deal’ Brexit were particularly severe, ‘and it is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare’.
Six months on from PAC’s last report in May 2018, the situation for Defra’s stakeholders had changed ‘very little’ and the department must still address a range of scenarios, including Exit without a deal in March 2019 and a negotiated Exit with an implementation period lasting until the end of 2020, or possibly longer.
Ms Hillier added: “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.”
While the department had established a new directorate for business readiness and engagements, its previous focus on industry and representative groups had left individual businesses and organisations – particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – ‘unaware and ill-prepared’.
The PAC Report said: “The department has made good progress in drafting the 86 statutory instruments it must prepare, with three-quarters of them either fully drafted or near completion.
“But in its efforts to rush through the drafting, we remain concerned about risks to quality. The amount of parliamentary time that these, and those of other departments, will require is daunting.”
PAC Report 2017-19: Conclusions and recommendations
Recommendation: The department needs to urgently develop a credible plan for increasing vet capacity for export health certificates that does not add to exporter’s costs, including addressing concerns around coverage across the country and whether it is appropriate or possibly for non-vets to sign off health certificates.
Recommendation: The department and the Health and Safety Executive needs to provide realistic, honest advice to chemical manufacturers about the implications of a ‘no-deal’ exit, including the steps manufacturers need to take to re-register their products with the EU, and the possible interruption in their ability to trade with EU-27 countries.
Recommendation: The department needs to commit to a timeframe for implementing pre-notification and full checks of EU food imports at UK borders.
Recommendation: The department needs to limit the use of non-disclosure agreements to commercially sensitive discussions. It should urgently step up its communications with businesses and other stakeholders on what they need to do to prepare, particularly with SMEs that are not affiliated to industry bodies.
Recommendation: The Cabinet Office should prioritise EU statutory instruments across government to ensure the drafting of those of highest priority is completed to the proper quality standard, and that there is time for proper parliamentary scrutiny ahead of EU Exit.
Recommendation: In its response to this report, the Department should set out how it will ensure that all posts, including those unrelated to EU Exit, are staffed by people who are fully trained and with the right skills and experience to maintain quality of work and workforce well-being.
Recommendation: The Department should provide us with an update by the end of December 2018 on whether the key IT projects are on track for testing in the new year and a further update in January on the results of the testing.