PAC: Departments have no clear plan in face of impossible Brexit challenge

Committee Member and Portsmouth MP voices concern that continued uncertainty is sinking Whitehall’s planning capacity

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) face an unprecedented challenge in preparing for Brexit, according to the cross-party Public Accounts Committee.

Portsmouth South MP and member of the PAC, Stephen Morgan, has said key Government Departments are still without coherent plans for post-Brexit Britain, almost two years after the referendum.

But the new report from Parliament’s oldest select committee says they are being hampered by the pervasive uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which leaves not only departments but also businesses in the dark about exactly what they need to do to prepare.

This means that Defra, in particular, is having to work up options for the three different scenarios – deal, no deal or transition. This is time consuming and costly. It also has to navigate new legislation and major IT programmes in very short time.

The committee is concerned about how realistic the departments’ plans for Brexit are, especially where new IT systems are required. But both departments appear optimistic that they can deliver what’s required to be ready for March 2019, whatever the outcome of the negotiations.

There is a lot at stake – a functioning trade policy is vital and if the UK leaves the single market and customs union there need to be clear alternatives in place or business and the economy will suffer.

MPs from all parties reported that DIT appears to have adopted a free trade policy but business needs time to adapt and there are still many uncertainties with no clear timetable for changes. Defra has said it will fall back on to manual systems as it seeks to deliver all that it needs to for Brexit, but this could impede or at least slow down imports and exports causing severe delays at the border.

Stephen Morgan MP, said:

‘The Government is running out of time to get its house in order on Brexit. Too many departments have too little idea of what arrangements will be made after we leave the EU.

Defra and DIT have no clear plan or even priorities as our country faces some of the most critical changes in recent political history. It’s not good enough and taxpayers deserve far better.’

Deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and Conservative MP, Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown, said:

‘We welcome the Government’s confirmation that there are 325 workstreams, an increase from the initial 313 that were published in the National Audit Office’s report of November 2017.

Whilst it is useful to have an idea of the substantive areas that each department is working on to prepare for Brexit, at some stage Parliament needs to be given the opportunity to see how well prepared the Government is in its infrastructure and resources to successfully carry out this process.’