The government has rejected a call by an influential committee of MPs to lay out a timeframe for introducing checks of EU food imports at UK borders in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
At the moment, the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs has no plans to introduce extra checks on food imports from the EU immediately after the UK leaves the bloc if no withdrawal agreement is signed, and has not said when it might introduce checks in future.
In a November report on the department’s Brexit preparations, the Public Accounts Committee urged Defra to reconsider, saying that waving imports through without additional screening would create “increased risks to food safety and of smuggling”.
But the government said this week that while it would introduce pre-notification requirements for “high-risk” EU food imports in June, “no [other] changes or additional controls are needed for the short term”.
“Import controls are applied on the basis of risk. Biosecurity and public health risks posed by EU imports will not change immediately upon leaving the EU,” it said in a Treasury minute.
It said Defra and the Food Standards Agency were developing proposals for “risk based and proportionate” future food import controls, which they would consult on later this year.
The government also disagreed with PAC’s assertion that Defra needed a “credible plan” to increase veterinary capacity to produce the health certificates needed to export animals and animal products to EU states. The number of health certificates the UK produces per year – currently around 50,000 – could as much as triple in a no-deal scenario, environment secretary Michael Gove said last year.
The response said that “initially, the department considered intervening in the market to provide extra capacity”, but that it was now confident the market would meet demand. However, it added that the Animal and Plant Health Agency had made training available for support officers who would help with administrative parts of the certification process.
The government also rejected PAC’s recommendation to provide more advice about what no-deal would mean for chemicals manufacturers, pointing to its previous technical notices about chemicals regulations and guidance from the European Chemicals Agency, as well as its call to stop using non-disclosure agreements apart from in commercially sensitive discussions.
However, it did agree that the Cabinet Office should prioritise EU statutory instruments across government to ensure high-priority legislation is completed with time for parliamentary scrutiny before Brexit.
PAC had warned that Defra had “very little time” to get its SIs ready, “putting quality and parliamentary scrutiny at risk”.
The government said it would aim to implement the recommendation by this spring. “The government is committed to providing time for parliament to consider the statutory instruments that are needed to secure a functioning statute book by exit day,” it said.
Defra had 41 Brexit-related SIs still to be laid before parliament as of 14 January, Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty confirmed earlier this month. It also had six remaining SIs to lay on behalf of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
All of Defra’s SIs to correct retained EU law were on track to be laid before the end of February, Moriarty said in a letter to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 18 January. The department had already laid 62 Brexit SIs before parliament, she said, plus a further 18 on behalf of the NICS.
The government also agreed with PAC’s recommendation to set out how it would ensure Defra would ensure its staff were fully trained and had appropriate skills amid the department’s rapid expansion of its workforce to cope with Brexit preparations.
Last year Moriarty told the MPs that large-scale recruitment and training was a “very big challenge”. “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,” she told the committee.
In the Treasury minute, the government said Defra had a “comprehensive induction and capability programme” and was supporting staff “during this sustained period of pressure” through measures such as flexible working and on-site counsellors.
It also said it had already stepped up its communication with businesses on how to prepare for Brexit, as recommended by the committee.
And the government defended Defra’s progress on key IT projects, in response to the committee’s request for a progress update. "The department has increasing confidence that all services are robust. There are no major issues to date and there have been no systemic failures,” it said.