A National Audit Office report on Whitehall’s progress on implementing the UK’s decision to leave the European Union has identified 313 ongoing workstreams across central government created to support the move.
The highest number – 69 – are within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, while the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs – often described as the department most likely to be impacted by Brexit – has 43. By contrast, the Attorney General's Office has two.
The public-spending watchdog’s overview focuses on the co-ordinating role played by David Davis’ Department for Exiting the European Union in central government, and describes current activity rather than offering a qualitative study. Notably, it refers to leaving the EU as “Exit” rather than “Brexit”.
The NAO overview stresses that the “nature and scale of the implementation task varies significantly across the work streams”, but notes that in many cases the work will require the formulation of new legislation.
In the case of BEIS, it pointed to state aid and the nuclear industry as areas greatly impacted by Brexit; for Defra, agriculture and fisheries represent massive challenges.
In addition to the nine parliamentary bills being prepared to support Brexit, the NAO said DExEU estimated that “up to 1,000” pieces of secondary legislation would need to be in place by March 2019, when the two-year formal exit period triggered by prime minister Theresa May comes to an end.
The report notes that parliament only manages to deal with around 1,200 pieces of secondary legislation in any given year.
“DExEU has advised departments that they should assume there will be minimal room for non-critical non-Exit secondary legislation in the run up to Exit and that they should plan accordingly,” the NAO said.
Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee said the document laid bare “the daunting challenge” faced by the civil service in implementing Brexit.
“I question whether Whitehall has the ability to deliver the 313 projects and hundreds of new laws it says are needed,” she said.
“There is a risk that anything non-Brexit related will be neglected.
“This raises the issue of whether DExEU, Treasury and the Cabinet Office are really doing enough to ensure government departments aren’t overwhelmed, and can continue to deliver the vital public services we are all relying on, alongside a smooth exit from the EU.”
Elsewhere, the report confirmed that departments have been instructed to plan for “negotiated outcome and ‘no deal’ scenarios” in relation to Brexit.
The NAO said DExEU had also run two “stocktake” exercises so far this year, which had scrutinised departments’ plans and “examined their readiness” for Brexit, adding that cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had chaired the meetings with the departments “most impacted”.
No details were given of the findings of the stocktake sessions.