There is no guarantee problems will not arise in some of the Brexit-related projects the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is managing, given the “huge scale and complexity” of the preparations, permanent secretary Clare Moriarty has warned.
Although the department is on track to complete many of its projects before March next year, the high risk associated with managing one of the highest Brexit workloads in government means unexpected problems could arise, Moriarty told the Public Accounts Committee.
Large-scale recruitment to manage these projects is also the source of “anxiety”, Moriarty said. The department had so far recruited 1,300 extra civil servants to deal with the its Brexit workload – one of the highest of any government department – and is "about half way through" the process of hiring 1,400 more, Moriarty told committee this week.
Taking on and training such a huge tranche of people is a “very big challenge”, Moriarty said. Although she said the department was used to taking on graduates through the Civil Service Fast Stream, she added: “It is – I am not going to pretend – an anxiety that we are doing these very, very large-scale and very complex projects and we have a different mix of people from what the department is used to.”
For many of the projects the department is managing, “if everything goes to plan, we will be in a position to bring them on stream, test them and get users involved, but we will not know until we get to certain stages whether there will be hidden issues” she said.
“Even with all our resources focused on making sure that we can catch problems early and fix them, I cannot guarantee that there will not be something that gets through,” she said.
“The thing that keeps me awake at night is the fact that we cannot know until we have gone through [the testing] process what we will find… I cannot guarantee that there will not be something that gets through.”
Gove 'confident' department will be ready
Moriarty also gave evidence to the House of Lords EU Energy and Exit Sub-Committee this week alongside environment secretary Michael Gove, who said he was "confident" the department could finish its preparations and pass the necessary legislation needed even in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Gove said his "single biggest concern" was what would happen to UK agricultural exports at ports. There is no border inspection post in Calais, and so Defra plans to divert exports to Antwerp and Rotterdam, he said.
Another area of uncertainty is that the UK will not be allowed to export animals to EU member states until it has been listed as a third country, Gove said. The EU is unwilling to negotiate this while the UK is still a member state, which Gove described as a "frustration" for the government.
This negotiation process could take up to six months, which Gove said would be “ample time” to negotiate during the post-Brexit transition period if a withdrawal agreement is reached. There are “indications that the EU could accelerate that process” in a no-deal scenario, he said, but this is not guaranteed.
Responding to a National Audit Office report published in September that warned Defra had run out of time to deliver on all of its Brexit preparation plans in the event of a no-deal scenario, Gove said “subsequent action has been taken” to put the department back on track.
“As Sir Amyas [Morse, head of the NAO] was drawing his conclusions, we were already drawing not just on the conversations we’d had with him, but also on the resolutions that both senior officials in the department and ministers within the department had made to step up preparations in the event of no deal,” he said.
One of the issues raised in the NAO report was whether the UK’s veterinary workforce had the capacity to process the increased volume of export health certificates that will be needed to export animals to EU states.
The UK generates around 50,000 health certificates a year, a number which could increase by between 150% and 300% in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Gove told the committee. He said there was capacity within the veterinary profession to meet this demand, but that the department was liaising with the Royal College of Veterinarians to see if extra capacity could be added by allowing non-vets to sign off health certificates under the supervision of a qualified vet.
He acknowledged that the UK did not have capacity to manage the extra waste it would need to handle if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, but said this issue would be addressed in a waste strategy the department will publish, “God willing”, shortly after the Budget at the end of this month.