Saturday, March 23, 2019

Defra faces enormous Brexit challenge, say MPs

March 5, 2019 by  
Filed under News & Business

MPs have warned that Defra faces enormous challenges in the run-up to Brexit – with little certainty as the deadline of 29 March approaches.

The Public Accounts Committee said there was a high level of risk in the department’s portfolio, with many of Defra’s plans dependent on co-operation from other government departments, agencies and the goodwill of EU member states.

The cross-party committee is responsible for overseeing government expenditures – and to ensure that it is effective and honest. Many businesses have not been given detailed advice on what Brexit would involve, it warned in a report last autumn.

Complacent

Fundamental issues for importers and exporters of food, chemicals and animal producers were yet to be resolved, said the report. The department was too complacent about potential levels of disruption or interruption to trade, it added.

With no agreement between Westminster and Brussels on the terms under which the UK would leave the EU, Defra’s preparation for Brexit continued to be complicated by its need to work on a range of solutions for different scenarios, the report warned.

Smaller businesses in particular remained unaware and ill-prepared. 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 negotiations.

The department has made good progress in drafting 86 statutory instruments it must prepare, with the majority of them either fully drafted or near completion. But in its efforts to rush through the drafting, the committee remain concerned about risks to quality.

Committee chairman Meg Hillier said the risks associated with no-deal Brexit in particular were severe. It was alarming how little specific information Defra had provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare, she added.

‘Long way from ready’

Ms Hillier said: “Brexit looms but Defra is a long way from being ready. In the continued uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, Defra’s civil servants must prepare for multiple and in some cases ill-defined scenarios.”

She 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.”

Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty responded by saying the department was on track to deliver operational IT services to facilitate trade in livestock, animal products, chemicals and animal medicines by 29 March as part of the government’s preparations for no-deal Brexit.

In an email to the committee on 28 January, Ms Moriarty said: “We have carried out ongoing testing since January 2018 to ensure that each service will be ready to perform as expected – both individually and in combination – and in different user scenarios.”

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