The Public Accounts Committee has warned that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy may not pull off Brexit in time as a report by the NAO laid bare the scale of its implementation challenge.
Meg Hillier, PAC chair, said that pushing legislation BEIS needs through parliament “will be a massive task in itself” – while the department has said it has sidelined many of its other legislation requirements in order to prioritise EU exit work.
The National Audit Office analysis of the department’s workload found that it will require 150 pieces of secondary legislation to deliver Brexit and more than 500 extra staff next year.
BEIS, which was created in July 2016 following a merger between the business and energy departments, has one of the largest and most complex EU exit portfolios in government, which it must balance alongside a “pressing domestic policy agenda”.
The NAO said this includes developing the government’s flagship industrial strategy, working on the new nuclear agenda and creating the public body, UK Research and Innovation.
It has, the report said, conducted a prioritisation exercise of the legislation it requires for Brexit – and has started developing non-legislative options for policy areas it thinks it can implement without new legislation.
BEIS leads 68 separate Brexit workstreams, nearly 22% of the cross-government total of 313. Of these, 21 are considered critical by the Department for Exiting the European Union. It has predicted it will need to push through 150 pieces of secondary legislation to deliver Brexit.
Responding to the report, Hillier said: “People and businesses are relying on BEIS to look after their economic future in a post-Brexit world.
“The department has huge amounts of urgent Brexit-related work to deliver in areas including energy, business regulation, and scientific research. It will need to recruit over 400 new staff, create entirely new organisations, and consult a vast number of businesses.
“My worry is that BEIS simply will not pull it off in time. Getting the dozens of new laws needed to support this work through parliament at the right moment will be a massive task in itself.”
The department recruited 269 new staff between May and September to support EU exit work, and estimates it will need to hire 350 more next year plus 180 in its arms-length bodies.
While some of these will work on short-term projects, BEIS expects the majority to be required over the longer term.
The figure of 269 is just 77% of the department’s staffing needs for 2017-18. BEIS told the NAO that staffing gaps arose because of the competition between departments for high calibre staff, delays caused by security clearance procedures and the effort required to induct and train new civil service recruits.
The department has also redeployed 100 of its staff from their existing duties to work on Brexit.
HM Treasury has handed BEIS £35m in additional funding for Brexit work in 2017-18.
A government spokesperson said: "This series of reports produced by the NAO highlights the extensive work that's been undertaken across the whole of government to support our withdrawal from the EU.
"Close collaboration between departments is vital as we negotiate our exit. We continue to monitor the situation closely throughout the process to ensure we have the right resources, in the right place, at the right time."