Defra has been accused of ‘gagging’ membership organisations after it emerged the department was asking them to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) before engaging in detailed discussions on Brexit planning.
Reports earlier this year suggested logistics companies which operate the UK border had been forced to sign NDAs by Government departments, but a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing this week revealed Defra was using a similar approach.
Defra’s director general for farming, food and animal and plant health, David Kennedy, told MPs on the committee that the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents UK retailers, had been asked to sign a NDA.
Farmers Guardian has since requested a full list of the organisations which signed Defra NDAs, but was refused.
Mr Kennedy said: “About a month ago, we brought in the BRC and various other organisations to have a very frank and open and detailed discussion about the borders arrangements, and particularly the import arrangements we had.
“That was for us to get a first reading of the reaction from industry and it was not for them to tell all of that to their members, that was to come after the technical notices [to allow businesses to plan for a no-deal Brexit], which were published recently.”
Meg Hillier, the chair of the PAC, told Mr Kennedy and Defra’s chief civil servant, Clare Moriarty, who was also giving evidence, that secrecy would prevent the department from being able to plan properly.
“It sounds like they are being gagged if they are signing a NDA about the discussions they are having with you about preparedness for EU exit,” she said.
“Especially something like the BRC which represents a large number of businesses. How are small businesses supposed to know when trade bodies sign these?”
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee chair Neil Parish and Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman also criticised the approach.
Mr Parish said: “Defra needs to be much more open as we develop our new British agricultural policy and environment policy.
“It would be fair for the British taxpayer to demand more transparency once we have left the EU. A policy of transparency from Defra sooner would be better, rather than waiting to be pushed into a situation where they are forced to be more open.”
Ms Hayman told FG the lack of transparency was ‘simply unacceptable’.
“This closed-door attitude from Michael Gove’s department does nothing to inspire confidence, particularly in light of the chronic lack of Brexit preparedness at Defra and the very real prospect of a no-deal scenario under this Government,” she added.