The UK could face major disruption at its ports when the country leaves the European Union because the Department for Transport's plans for Brexit are “worryingly underdeveloped”, MPs have warned.
In a report that said there was a “significant and growing risk” that DfT would not be adequately prepared for a no-deal Brexit, the Public Accounts Committee said they were concerned by the “slow progress and poor communication” around work to prepare ports for Brexit.
They were especially perturbed by the pace of progress on Operation Brock, the department’s plan to manage traffic at Dover and in Kent, which includes holding lorries on a section of the M20. According to the report, DfT has yet to carry out its planned desk-based testing of the operation, and is relying on its arms-length body Highways England to liaise with local stakeholders – despite acknowledging “this has not always worked well so far”.
MPs said they were sceptical about officials’ assurances that critical projects would be completed on time. The department has said it is happy with its progress on four such projects – maritime databases, international driving permits, the trailer registration scheme and road haulage permits – but the committee said evidence provided by DfT was “short on detail and suggested a heavy reliance on assurance from officials in its arms-length bodies”.
The report said DfT’s approach to its Brexit preparations appeared “complacent” and added: “We were left concerned that the department remains prone to the optimism bias that we have witnessed on other projects overseen by this department.”
In evidence to the committee last month, DfT perm sec Bernadette Kelly admitted that officials’ “can-do optimism bias” had contributed to failures in some projects, because problems had not been addressed early on.
The report said the department should write to PAC before Christmas to set out the results of any testing of Operation Brock, along with an update on progress across the 28 Brexit-related projects it is managing.
It warned there was “little, if any, contingency left to cope with slippage amongst the 28 internal projects it has underway”, which could lead to projects not being completed in timeif the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
Other risk factors the report said would affect DfT’s no-deal planning included the fact that some of its preparations are dependent on decisions taken elsewhere in government or on discussions with other countries, and that IT projects – of which the department must deliver several – are “notoriously difficult for government to deliver on time”.
The committee also criticised the department’s “continuing caution” in its public communication about Brexit, which it said had left the public and businesses unable to properly prepare for no deal.
The committee also raised concerns about the pace at which key legislation was being prepared. “There is a danger that the required legislation will neither be subject to proper scrutiny, nor passed in time for EU exit,” it said.
As of 24 October, the department had laid 19 of the 66 statutory instruments it intends to pass ahead of Brexit before parliament. The department said it was exploring ways to speed up the process of passing the legislation, and the committee responded: “We are concerned that there is a risk that the scope for parliamentary scrutiny could be reduced for the sake of administrative convenience.”
A spokesperson for DfT said: “We disagree with the committee’s conclusions which are not accurate and we are both disappointed and surprised that they have failed to reflect the evidence set out in the NAO’s report, which found that the department has made a determined effort in its preparations and achieved a great deal.”
The NAO report, published in July, said DfT had made a "determined effort to address the significant and complex challenge of delivering the wide-ranging set of actions required of it to support the UK’s exit from the EU", but warned that at that point there was "an increasing risk of not being able to deliver [all of its contingency arrangements for no deal] within the time available".
The report is the latest in a series by PAC examining departments' readiness for Brexit. Earlier this month the committee branded the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' efforts to speed up its preparations "too little, too late".