Environment secretary Michael Gove has told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee he is “confident” Defra can deliver on its Brexit preparations, but admitted to being “conscious of the attention and effort” this will require.
He made the comments in a letter to MPs, which was published yesterday amid speculation that he could be poised to resign from the cabinet over prime minister Theresa May’s draft EU withdrawal agreement. The communication followed an appearance before the committee last month.
Today, Gove has reportedly signalled he intends to remain in post at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But his letter sets out the challenges and risks for the department as it prepares for Brexit. In it, he said the department had so far laid 11 of the 138 statutory instruments it is responsible for laying before parliament so that the UK is ready to function after leaving the European Union.
Gove’s reassurances come despite warnings from MPs on the Public Accounts Committee this week that the department still faces “enormous challenges” to complete the work before the exit date of 29 March next year.
In a report published on Wednesday, the PAC branded efforts to speed up preparations – including setting up a directorate to engage with businesses – “too little, too late”. If preparations are not completed on time, the safety of food imports could be compromised and UK agricultural and chemical exports could be delayed, it warned.
It said the department must, as a matter of urgency, “develop a credible plan” to increase veterinary capacity to carry out the checks needed to export animals to EU countries, and provide “realistic, honest advice” to chemical manufacturers about the implications of a no-deal scenario.
The committee also said it was concerned that many businesses had not been given detailed advice on how to prepare for Brexit, and until recently, Defra had had “very limited” contact with stakeholders. “It should urgently step up its communications with businesses and other stakeholders on what they need to do to prepare, particularly with SMEs that are not affiliated to industry bodies,” it said.
"There is a high level of risk in the department’s portfolio, with many of its plans dependent on co-operation from other departments, the devolved administrations and agencies and the goodwill of EU member states," the report said. "The department is too complacent about the levels of disruption or interruption to trade that may be faced. Fundamental issues for food, chemical and animal importers and exporters are yet to be resolved."
Responding to the report, a Defra spokesperson said: “We do not accept the PAC’s conclusions, which fail to accurately reflect Defra’s preparations for leaving the EU.
“The PAC has ignored key findings from the National Audit Office, which found that ‘Defra has achieved a great deal and to a very demanding timescale’." The NAO published its report in September, warning that despite this progress, the department had run out of time to complete all of its preparations before Brexit.
The spokesperson added: “In producing this one-sided report, the PAC has failed to acknowledge the substantial progress we have made in replacing EU functions, hiring key staff and building new IT systems.”