The Department for Transport permanent secretary has asked her secretary of state for a ministerial direction to approve around £25m of spending on Brexit-related projects, before they receive royal assent.
Bernadette Kelly’s request prompted the second ministerial direction issued to civil servants published this month, after the Department for Education perm sec was given one following concerns he raised about the “ambitious” timeline for T-Levels.
But the DfT’s appeal for funds for new road haulage and trailer registration systems does not represent a lack of confidence in policy, but rather is part of a growing trend of departments forced to spend money on projects necessary for EU exit before relevant legislation is in place. It is a trend that the Institute for Government think tank warns could point to wider transparency and accountability issues.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade have all also sought and received ministerial directions to approve spending on Brexit-related projects.
The DfT perm sec made her request following guidance from HM Treasury in November last year, telling permanent secretaries they should seek ministerial directions for critical Brexit spend if it is required before it can be statutorily approved through legislation.
These “technical directions” allow departments to spend money when delaying would jeopardise the UK’s readiness for EU exit. Normally, ministerial directions are used when a perm sec wants to make it known that they think a planned policy would be inappropriate or not value for money, as it then forces ministers to issue formal instructions to proceed.
Kelly, the accounting officer for DfT, is responsible for ensuring that the department’s expenditure is compliant with Treasury guidance on managing public money.
“A proportion of our spending on EU exit preparations must occur in advance of Royal Assent of relevant Bills if services are to be ready for Day 1 exit,” she explained in her letter to transport secretary Chris Grayling.
A new system for road haulage and trailer registration will need to be in place in advance of exit day to give UK hauliers time to apply for permits, Kelly said.
She added that the department had forecasted costs of up to £10m for the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to develop a new road haulage permit system and costs of £15.4 for developing systems for managing a trailer registration system.
In his response, Grayling directed Kelly to commit funds to the two schemes, which he said were “important to ensuring safety and security for UK citizens and businesses travelling or operating in the EU after our exit”.
He added: “I have no doubt that developing systems for road haulage permits and trailer registrations will take time and it is therefore important that the DVSA and DVLA begin preparations for the as soon as possible.”
Defra’s ministerial direction, given in January 2018, concerned £16m for six Brexit projects – including a new national import control system for animals – before the EU Withdrawal Bill becomes law.
BEIS received approval to spend £2.4m on a product safety database in March, while DIT was given permission to spend £8.9m to create new watchdog body the Trade Remedies Authority, at the end of March.
Benoit Guerin, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, said technical directions were “no way for government to deliver its business” and pointed to wider transparency and accountability issues.
“All directions issued so far are directly related to delays in Brexit legislation, partly due to Government making every effort to avoid defeats in Parliament,” he wrote in a blog on the IfG website.
Guerin said departments “should not have to resort to directions as a normal course of action” because legislation is stuck in Parliament. He warned of the possibility of “parliamentary pile-up” and of departments having to make decisions on the basis of legislation that has not been properly debated.
The DfT direction was requested in February but not made public until yesterday.