Government departments have failed to meet the standards of transparency expected of them when publishing details of contracts for consultancy services related to Brexit, the spending watchdog has said, in a report that found EU-exit consultancy spending topped £97m in a year.
Between April 2018 and April 2019, the Cabinet Office alone had spent or agreed to spend £65m on EU exit consultancy, according to a National Audit Office report.
Anticipating that departments would need to fill staffing and skills gaps in the run-up to Brexit, the Cabinet Office set up a framework in January 2018 for departments to access consultancy services more quickly and easily than they could through other procurement routes. Through this framework, departments submitted bids for the contracts to the Cabinet Office, which then assessed and approved the bids.
Total expenditure across government is in fact likely to be higher than the total quoted in the report, the NAO said, as the watchdog did not audit all departments. Instead, it analysed data from the Crown Commercial Service, the Cabinet Office and a sample of four other departments.
And the figure is set to climb in the months to come, after departments signed contracts related to Brexit worth a further £160m in May.
But the NAO said departments had been too slow to publish details of the agreements, and that some had not been published as recommended.
Guidance published by the Crown Commercial Service in December 2017 said departments should publish basic information about contract awards within 90 calendar days, in an effort to increase transparency about their spending.
But it took 119 days on average to publish the basic details of the Brexit consultancy contracts, compared to 82 days for all types of consultancy contracts. The report also noted that some contracts that had been published had been “significantly redacted”.
However, the NAO found that it has taken on average 119 days for basic details of EU exit consultancy contracts to be published, compared to 82 days for all consultancy contracts. The NAO also found that in its review of contracts for EU exit consultancy that some had not been published as recommended, and all that had been published were significantly redacted.
Almost all of the spending that happened through the Cabinet Office framework – 96% – was with six companies, the NAO found. Deloitte took the biggest share, at 22%, followed by PA Consulting with 19%, PricewaterhouseCoopers with 18%, and Ernst & Young, with 15%. Bain & Company took 11% of the contracts and Boston Consulting Group 10%.
Most consultancy contracts ran for less than three months, but departments have regularly extended them, the report said.
Commenting on the report, Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said her committee had become “all too familiar” with a lack of transparency around the government’s preparations to leave the EU.
“It is not good enough that some departments are failing to publish even basic information about their contracts and that the Cabinet Office does not know how much is being spent across government,” she said.
“The Cabinet Office must ensure that departments’ use of consultants, and the money spent, is fully open to public scrutiny.” The PAC will question civil service chief executive John Manzoni on the figures on Wednesday.
A government spokesperson said: “It is often more cost-efficient to draw upon the advice of external specialists for short-term projects requiring specialist skills.
“These include EU exit priorities, such as ensuring the uninterrupted supply of medical products and food to the UK.”