The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) faced “enormous challenges” in the lead-up to the 29 March 2019 Brexit deadline, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
A report issued by PAC found fundamental issues for food, chemical and animal importers and exporters yet to be resolved.
It was put together ahead of yesterday’s announcement of a draft withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU. While yet to be published, the deal is expected to keep the UK in the Customs Union and retain some elements of the Single Market.
The PAC report said there was a “high level of risk” in Defra’s portfolio, with many of its plans dependent on co-operation from other departments, the devolved administrations and agencies, and the goodwill of EU Member States.
‘Too little, too late’
It criticised Defra’s recent directorate for business readiness and engagement as “too little, too late”, adding that its focus had been on industry and representative groups, “which means that individual businesses and organisations, in particular SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] remain unaware and ill-prepared”.
PAC also found it “particularly concerning” that the department’s ability to impart specific information had been hampered by “excessive secrecy at the centre of government and continuing uncertainty over the outcome of the negotiations”.
The report said: “Six months since we last reported in May 2018, the situation for the department’s stakeholders has changed very little, as the department’s preparation for EU Exit continues to be complicated by its need to work on a range of solutions for different scenarios.”
“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.”
‘Serious’ concerns over scrutiny
In addition, with the pace at which new legislation would have to be agreed, PAC said it was “seriously concerned about the level of scrutiny”.
It asked Defra to be clear about the impact of not being able to make the necessary legal changes in time, adding that “muddling through in the hope of goodwill is highly risky”.
PAC chair Meg Hillier MP said she was concerned that the department had “lost sight of its priorities”.
“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,” Hillier claimed.
“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 committee is made up of 16 cross-party MPs.
PAC conclusions and recommendations
Conclusion: In a no-deal scenario there is a risk of UK exports of animals and animal products being delayed at borders because of a shortage of vets.
Recommendation: Defra needs urgently to develop a credible plan for increasing vet capacity for export health certificates that does not add to exporters’ costs including addressing concerns around coverage across the country and whether it is appropriate or possible for non-vets to sign off health certificates.
Conclusion: There are increased risks to food safety and of smuggling as a result of the Defra’s plan to allow food imports to pass through UK ports without checks following Brexit.
Recommendation: Defra needs to commit to a timeframe for implementing pre-notification and full checks of EU food imports at UK borders.
Conclusion: Defra still has an enormous task leading up to Brexit, including completing six critical IT systems that have not yet been tested.
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.
Conclusion: Defra’s engagement with industry stakeholders has been too little, too late, insufficiently focused on SMEs and hampered by excessive government secrecy.
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.
Conclusion: Defra has very little time left to get the necessary statutory instruments on to the statute book in time for Brexit, putting quality and parliamentary scrutiny at risk.
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 Brexit.