MPs have slammed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for failing to recruit staff with the level of experience and expertise required to deliver Brexit.
The department has recruited 90% of the staff it needs to carry out Brexit work in 2016/17, but the cross-party Public Accounts Committee said it was not convinced it had “the right mix of skills and experience”.
In a report published on 25 April, the PAC also said it was alarmed at the department’s “apparent complacency” in the face of the challenge of delivering Brexit. It said BEIS had not yet reprioritised its workload or begun the procurement process for a dozen “essential” digital systems needed before March next year.
But a department spokesperson said that BEIS has received an additional £185m since the report was put together to help it recruit “high-calibre staff”. The department’s share of the £700m that the Treasury allocated for Brexit work in 2017-18 was £35.1m.
BEIS said its recruitment for Brexit work was on track, with 305 of the 350 staff it needed in 2017-18 hired by December last year. But the PAC said the department was unable to provide a breakdown of the skills and levels of experience in its workforce, or identify particular skills gaps. It did not know how many staff had negotiating skills.
The committee also said it was concerned that BEIS has so far focused on hiring policy professionals, but as negotiations progress it will need people with “experience of digital skills, knowledge of particular sectors and subject matter experts”, who are harder to recruit.
The department needs to build at least 12 new digital systems, such as a database to register trademarks, which the PAC said should be operational by March 2019 in the event of Britain leaving the EU without a deal on its future relationship.
But BEIS told MPs that it had not yet begun procuring these systems, and would start the process in the next few months.
“Given the government’s generally poor track record in delivering IT projects, we are extremely sceptical that the department will be able to deliver these systems in time,” the MPs wrote in their report.
Last year the National Audit Office found that BEIS needed 150 pieces of secondary legislation to deliver Brexit, which the department has said is achievable “provided it has good cooperation from other parts of government”, according to the PAC report.
But the PAC pointed out that current processes for cross-departmental planning of the legislation timetable needed to be revised for the department to be able to deliver its commitments on time.
Committee chair Meg Hillier, a Labour MP, said the department “appears to be operating in a parallel universe where urgency is an abstract concept with no bearing on the Brexit process”.
She pointed out that BEIS is responsible for 68 of the 313 Brexit work streams across Whitehall, giving it “an extremely important, challenging and time-sensitive workload”.
“Yet the department told us it had not reprioritised its overall programme of work, had not begun procurement for around a dozen essential digital systems and could not provide vital information about its workforce,” she added.
According to the report, BEIS told the PAC that there was very little of its workload that it could stop or postpone, and that it expected to deliver all the policies within its remit.
Hillier continued: “We have grave concerns about this apparent complacency, compounded by the lack of transparency on the department’s progress with what in some cases will be critical projects.
“Sensitivities around negotiations with the EU must not be used as an excuse to keep taxpayers and Parliament in the dark. We urge the government to provide us with a swift update on the issues raised in our report."
The committee criticised the “paucity of information in the public domain” about what all departments are doing to prepare for Brexit.
In the case of BEIS, the department has not provided information on which of its 68 workstreams are considered critical and whether they are being delivered in line with expectations.
The PAC called for the department to update it within two months on “the full details of progress with these workstreams, including current risks ratings and progress against high-level milestones”.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “Along with the whole of government, BEIS is focused on getting the best deal for the UK and ensuring a smooth transition for businesses, consumers and workers.
“Since this report was written, BEIS has received £185m of extra funding to help deliver a successful Brexit by employing an increased number of staff on our Europe work, identifying the most pressing legislative challenges and remaining ahead of schedule by recruiting high-calibre staff to ensure we prepare thoroughly and effectively.”