Defra Brexit preparations held back by lack of clarity

Continued uncertainty over what the UK’s departure from the EU will mean in practice are seriously impeding the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) preparations for Brexit, according to a new report by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The new report, released today (4 May), looks at preparations by Defra and the Department for International Trade (DIT) for Brexit, with concern expressed regarding how realistic the departments’ plans for the UK’s departure are.

Defra, in particular, is struggling to be ready for March 2019, the notional date for the UK leaving the EU, with civil servants having to work up options for three different options – deal, no deal or transition – while working up new legislation and incorporating new major IT programmes into its work.Defra Brexit preparations held back by lack of clarity

The department has come in for criticism for its preparedness before, with Chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Mary Creagh MP raising concerns in a letter to Environment Secretary Michael Gove in March regarding the lack of workstreams in the department dedicated to Brexit and Defra’s estimation back in November that 1,200 new posts would need to be filled by March 2018 to support Brexit work, only 650 of which had been filled as of November.

In response, Gove stated in a letter to Creagh that the scope of Defra’s overall portfolio of work on Brexit was ‘currently subject to review’, but that ‘preparations for both a no deal scenario and longer-term work triggered by EU exit’ are ‘likely to increase the scope of the programme to about 70 projects in total’ – up from 43.

For the waste and resources industry, the PAC’s report will only increase anxiety ahead of Brexit, despite a string of new headline policies regarding the sector in recent months, such as the commitment to eliminate all ‘avoidable’ plastic by 2042 in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the consultations on the use of the tax system to reduce single-use plastics use and the introduction of a deposit return scheme for beverage containers.

Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, named the waste and resources sector as ‘high risk’ in its Brexit Risk Tracker back in October after Defra predicted it would not be able to reach the 60 per cent recycling target set by the EU’s Circular Economy Package.

Waste and resources maintained its ‘high risk’ status in the Risk Tracker’s January update due to concerns over lack of funding and capacity, with the National Audit Office stating in December that Brexit creates a significant extra workload for Defra, exemplified by Defra’s estimates on the number of extra posts it will need, which it will have to carry out while accommodating £147 million of budget cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19.

Funding issues at Defra have also had a negative impact on the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the charity tasked with delivering the government's waste and resources policy. Defra’s budget allocation dedicated to WRAP has fallen from £56 million for 2009/10 to £15.5 million for 2015/16, a decrease of 72 per cent. Its current budget for 2017/18 is below £10 million and continued cuts have forced the charity charged with delivering much of the government’s resource policy to make 25 members of staff redundant.

Report conclusions and recommendations

The PAC’s report made several conclusions and recommendations, including:

  • Defra must publish information and timelines setting out how and when it will be able to provide more explicit guidance for key stakeholders on how to prepare for Brexit by July 2018.
  • The Treasury must improve its processes for approving EU Exit funding so that departments have certainty about their funding and can plan more effectively – Defra was only allocated its £310 million of funding for 2018/19 on 13 March, at the time of the Chancellor’s Spring Statement.
  • With the department estimating that 80 per cent of its functions are in devolved areas of policy, Defra must report to the PAC by July 2018 on progress with its engagement with the devolved administrations.
  • Defra must ensure realistic plans and key milestones are in place for all of its workstreams by the end of July 2018.
  • Due to it being responsible for 43 of the government’s 313 EU-related workstreams and having to accommodate £138 million of cuts in in 2017/18 and 2018/19, Defra should acknowledge that it cannot continue with its current workload, and should inform the PAC by the end of June 2018 of its processes for prioritisation and a list of programmes and areas of activity that it is stopping, postponing or descoping.
  • Defra must ensure it has the necessary resources in place to complete its IT programmes on time and avoid costly and embarrassing contingencies involving manual completion and submission of forms, updating the PAC on its progress by the end of June 2018.

‘The clock is ticking’

Commenting on the report, PAC Chair Meg Hillier MP said: “Our committee has repeatedly raised concerns about government’s preparedness for life outside the EU. The clock is ticking and there is still no clarity about what Brexit will mean in practice. Against this backdrop, government departments must deliver fit-for-purpose systems and ways of working, in tandem with managing what in some cases is already a complex and ambitious programme of work.

“As our new report again makes clear, departments are under extreme pressure. If Parliament is to hold them to account then it is vital that government is as transparent as possible on the progress being made. The correspondence we are publishing today is the most comprehensive picture yet of the breadth of the challenge to be tackled.

“Defra alone has 64 active workstreams, up from 43 at the time we took evidence in March. DIT, formed in direct response to the EU referendum result, has mission-critical responsibilities. All departments have much to do. But we need to examine the substance of these work plans and I am not convinced that more information from across government cannot be provided now. The recent National Audit Office report on Brexit and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, for example, offers greater detail on workstreams than the Department for Exiting the EU has seen fit to provide in its letter. On behalf of taxpayers we will continue to press for that detail.”

Deputy Chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP added: “We welcome the government’s confirmation that there are 325 workstreams, an increase from the initial 313 that were published in the National Audit Office’s report of November 2017.

“Whilst it is useful to have an idea of the substantive areas that each department is working on to prepare for Brexit, at some stage Parliament needs to be given the opportunity to see how well prepared the government is in its infrastructure and resources to successfully carry out this process.”

You can view the full report on the PAC’s website.

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