Defra’s plans for Brexit may be unrealistic given the time and financial pressures on the department and confusion over its IT systems, a parliamentary report has said.
The Public Accounts Committee said Defra was “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 meant that the department had to work to three post-Brexit scenarios – deal, no deal or transition – which was “time-consuming and costly, [and] it also has to navigate new legislation and major IT programmes in a very short time”.
MPs said Defra had told them it would fall back on manual systems to deliver what is needed for Brexit, “but this could impede or at least slow down imports and exports causing severe delays at the border”.
Committee chair, Labour’s Meg Hillier, said: “Our committee has repeatedly raised concerns about the Government’s preparedness for life outside the EU. The clock is ticking and there is still no clarity about what Brexit will mean in practice. Defra alone has 64 active workstreams, up from 43 at the time we took evidence in March.”
The report pointed to problems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as Defra had told the committee that 80% of its functions were in devolved areas of policy.
“Failure to reach timely agreements with devolved administrations in these areas would have a far-reaching impact across its EU exit programme,” it said.
MPs thought it was unrealistic to expect Defra to achieve the efficiency savings needed alongside delivering Brexit and its extensive portfolio of non-Brexit work.
“Defra remains committed to saving £138m in 2018-19 to meet its spending review settlement,” the report noted.
“Without robust prioritisation to postpone or descope some of its workload, we consider it unrealistic to expect Defra to be able to deliver on all of these competing demands.”
Details on the extra staff Defra has drafted in to deal with Brexit were recently released.
A Government spokesperson said: “The Government has set a clear plan for Brexit and has made real progress delivering on this. We have already agreed the terms of an implementation period that will provide businesses with the continuity they need to prepare and thrive after we leave the EU.
“Work is being undertaken across the whole of government in a range of exit scenarios in preparation for our withdrawal from the EU. Close collaboration between departments is vital as we negotiate our exit, and Whitehall is rising to the challenge.”