Defra still faces enormous Brexit challenges, warns PAC

the Department for environment, food & rural affairs (Defra) faces enormous challenges in the lead-up to eU exit and, with the deadline of March 29 2019 looming, still does not know which scenario it is preparing for.

this is according to the latest report from the house of Commons Committee of Public accounts (PaC), who emphasised that 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.

In its report PaC further stressed that Defra 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 and many businesses have not been given detailed advice on what is required by eU exit, as the Department has had very limited engagement with stakeholders until recently.

six months since the last report (May 2018), the situation for Defra’s stakeholders has changed very little, as its preparation for eU exit continues to be complicated by its need to work on a range of solutions for different scenarios.

It has now established a new directorate for business readiness and engagement but its focus has been on industry and representative groups which means that individual businesses and organisations, in particular sMes remain unaware and ill-prepared.

PaC reckon that this is all too little, too late and it is particularly concerning that the Department’s ability to impart specific information has been hampered by excessive secrecy at the centre of government uncertainty over the outcome of the negotiations.

Defra, according to the report, has made good progress in drafting the 86 statutory instruments it must prepare, with three-quarters of them either fully drafted or near completion. But in its efforts to rush through the drafting, there remains concerns about risks to quality.

the amount of parliamentary time that these, and those of other departments, will require is daunting. Cabinet Office needs to ensure that those of the highest significance across government receive greatest priority but that all receive adequate parliamentary scrutiny ahead of eU exit.

With the pace at which new legislation will have to be agreed PaC are seriously concerned about the level of scrutiny and emphasise that they need the Department to be clear about the impact of not being able to make the necessary legal changes in time. Muddling through in the hope of goodwill is highly risky and means many businesses are left not knowing what the future will bring.

Commenting on the report, PaC chair Meg hillier MP said: “Brexit looms but the Department for environment, food & rural affairs is a long way from being ready. In the continued uncertainty about the Uk’s future relationship with the eU, Defra’s civil servants must prepare for

multiple and in some cases ill-defined scenarios. “anyone working in the dark is prone to stumble but in Defra’s case I am concerned that the

Department has lost sight of its priorities.
“the risks associated with ‘no-deal’ in particular are severe, and it is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual

businesses and organisations to prepare.
“Brexit border planning is not sufficiently developed, six critical It systems are still to be tested and there is a risk that in the Department’s rush to prepare necessary legislation, the quality of that

legislation will suffer.
“Defra is up against it but there is more it must do

to assure Parliament, businesses and the wider public that it has a firm grip on its responsibilities.”

fUW president Glyn roberts said: “the Public accounts Committee report reflects our repeated warnings about the dangers of the timetable and red lines drawn by Uk Government. similar concerns were raised in a National audit Office report just weeks ago.

“Within days of the referendum we called for Brexit to take place over a safe and realistic timescale. By comparison, the approach taken can

only be described as reckless.
“No responsible Uk Government would allow the agricultural industry

and others for which Defra is responsible to face the type of calamities warned about in this report and elsewhere. and of course other industries and essential services face similar problems because of Brexit.

“the Uk Government and Parliament has a duty to prevent the sort of self inflicted collapse being warned about.”

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