Civil servants redacted between 10% and 20% of the information in the analysis of 58 sectors of the UK economy provided to parliament last month, the top official at the Department for Exiting the European Union said yesterday.
Philip Rycroft told MPs that when his department was asked to release Brexit “impact assessments” that did not exist, it had instead decided to offer up cross-government sectoral analyses “to meet the spirit” of the request.
He was questioned by the Exiting the European Union Committee after Brexit secretary David Davis told it that Whitehall had not carried out any impact assessments, but it had produced a sectoral analysis of different industries.
Davis has been under fire since his department handed the committee an 850-page analysis of 58 sectors that make up 85% of the UK economy – partly because market-sensitive information was redacted, and partly because it was not the full impact assessment of what Brexit means to the economy that some MPs were expecting.
Labour put forward an Opposition Day debate motion on 1 November calling on the government to release the “sectoral impact assessments” it believed the government had undertaken following earlier references to them by Davis.
Whitehall has a formal definition for what an “impact assessment” is, contained within Cabinet Office legislation guidance. Davis told MPs yesterday that this kind of assessment had not taken place.
He said formal impact assessments were unnecessary while there were still a “phenomenal number of variables” with regard to Brexit, and that they would be undertaken further along the negotiating process.
Rycroft later told the committee that he was not depriving them of “a stack of 17 or 18 lever arch files” and nor had his department “removed whole swathes of material that pertain to the purpose of these documents”.
Instead, the redaction process focused on sentences or paragraphs of sensitive information, such as references to a specific company, he said.
But pressed repeatedly to give a figure of how much of the original material had been given to the committee, Rycroft said: “If I was to put a rough estimate on it I would say somewhere in the order of magnitude 80%-90% in terms of volume.”
Asked whether he thought it was an “odd state of affairs” to be told to provide information that doesn’t exist, the perm sec conceded that it was “a little bit odd”.
He added: “My initial thought was how do we provide information to the committee that is useful.
“What process could we put in place that overcomes the fact that there aren’t those impact assessments, but nevertheless assures the committee that there are sectoral analyses which are thorough and full and competent, in order to, if you like, meet the spirit of the humble address – and that’s the process we embarked on.”
Rycroft said when the motion was passed civil servants were instructed to bring sectoral analysis work that was started soon after the EU referendum up-to-date “to make sure it was of maximum use to the committee”, but to redact commercially, market or negotiation sensitive information.
There was a bit of structuring done to ensure there was a consistency across those reports, he added.
He insisted that the sectoral analysis was of “huge value” and the “foundation of all the advice” officials give to ministers on their negotiating strategy.
Rycroft requested to be allowed to check the material again if it was to be released publicly, to ensure there was “nothing [sensitive] inadvertently left in”. He said he was confident that the bulk of it doesn’t breach the guidelines given to departments.
He also said the European Commission would be doing its own sectoral analysis of the interests of the UK and other member states, but advised that the Commission was unlikely to put that material into the public domain even if the UK published its analysis.
“If the Commission was to provide us with that file it would save us an awful lot of work but I doubt that they will,” he said.