An Institute for Government report has found Defra’s ability to prepare for Brexit could be hampered by Ministers’ insistence upon keeping their plans under wraps.
The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) was said to have ‘done a good job’ in establishing itself, but many officials told researchers they were unaware of how the information they were feeding into the department was being used – meaning their specialist knowledge could not be fully exploited.
The report said: “Departments have told us they do not have a clear sense of what ‘ready for Article 50’ looks like: even in their specific policy areas, they do not know which issues need to be decided as part of the negotiating position and which can be dealt with later, once Article 50 talks are complete.
“This lack of clarity about what is needed before talks begin means departments cannot confidently plan and prioritise the key issues, and risk spending valuable time and resources on things that can wait.”
Researchers highlighted Defra as one of the departments most affected by Brexit and revealed it had established a number of internal workstreams to cover areas of work affected by the EU, but expressed concerns about limited capacity and resource.
They said: “The Defra budget is 17 per cent smaller now than it was in 2010, and will be almost 35 per cent smaller by March 2019. If the Government does not clearly set out its priorities, there is a risk the civil service will fail either to deliver existing commitments or to plan properly for Brexit and life afterwards.”
Concerns were also raised about the Great Repeal Bill, which was intended to be a ‘lift and shift’ of EU law into UK legislation, but which could be much more complicated in the environmental sphere because of the need to create new regulatory bodies.
Other officials told researchers there was not enough work being done to ‘consider the sunlit uplands of Brexit’ or identify pieces of legislation or regulation which might be usefully ditched after the UK leaves the EU.
“The first commission from DExEU to departments was to identify risks and opportunities presented by Brexit – but while we were told there is some work underway in Whitehall on the opportunities, we found the risks are occupying more time”, the report said.