The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will not be able to deliver on all of its Brexit preparation plans in the event of a no-deal scenario, the National Audit Office has warned.
Defra, which has one of the heaviest Brexit workloads in Whitehall, has made “good progress in its preparations for exiting the EU” but had fallen behind schedule on much of its portfolio, the NAO said in a report on 12 September.
The report also said the department lacked a clear vision for the new services and functions it will need post-Brexit, meaning it has a “limited understanding” of future costs.
Between February and early April, 39% of Defra's Brexit project milestones had been pushed back, with delays averaging seven weeks. “Defra attributes its missed milestones to its original plans being optimistic and based on planning assumptions that later proved incorrect,” the report said.
The department is responsible for 55 of the government’s 319 work streams, up from 43 since audit began in April. At that point, the department had detailed plans for 35 streams. Many were “of poor quality and lack maturity”, the report said, and only six complied fully with Defra’s planning standards. As of June, the department had drawn up new plans for 12 work streams.
The risk that Defra will not complete its preparations in a no-deal scenario when the Uk leaves the EU next March is “high and, until recently, not well understood,” the NAO said.
For some projects, Defra has passed the point where it could deliver its original plans for a no-deal exit, according to the report. It aims to have “sufficient arrangements in place if no deal is agreed” but still needs to identify the risks of projects not being completed, the NAO said.
Among the workstreams the NAO said Defra would be unable to complete is an effort to negotiate with 154 countries to introduce 1,400 UK versions of EU export health certificates, which are needed to export animals and animals and animal products.
The UK also lacks the required veterinary workforce to process the increased volume of export health certificates it expects if a deal is not reached, which could delay food exports. Defra had planned to inform the veterinary industry about the need to increase capacity in April, but as of September the work had not begun.
The department is now working to identify which of its statutory instruments to prioritise. Defra is preparing three bills on agriculture, fisheries and environmental principals and governance, and needs 93 SIs to transpose EU legislation into UK law at the point of exit. As of June 2018, a first draft had been completed for only 33 of these 93 Sis.
A further 58 SIs will be needed for non-EU businesses brings the total for 2018 to 151, double the average of 75 the department delivered in each of the previous eight years.
Staff recruitment target met
The department has now met its target of recruiting 1,300 new staff to deliver its Brexit programme by March 2018. There are now 1,182 additional staff in post and the remainder have been recruited. This figure marks significant progress since December 2017, when the NAO reported Defra had filled only 650 positions.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “The scale and complexity of what needs to be done to leave the EU is a significant challenge and Defra is impacted more than most. It has achieved a great deal, but gaps remain and with six months to go it won’t deliver all it originally intended in the event of no deal, and when gaps exist, it needs to focus on alternatives and mitigations."
Since the NAO's December report, Defra has reviewed its portfolio to account for longer-term post-Brexit planning; introduced an EU exit delivery group; secured £320m from the Treasury to fund its preparations; and designed and begun building new IT systems.
Responding to the NAO report, a Defra spokesperson highlighted this progress and said: “Since the report was written, we have continued to reprioritise our resources, expanded our workforce and made further progress on our extensive programme of work focused on preparing for a range of Brexit scenarios.
“Our work will mean that environmental, welfare and biosecurity standards will continue to be met in a way that supports trade and the smooth flow of goods.”