Despite the fact that the Defra has made good progress in its preparations for exiting the EU, it still faces an enormous challenge. This is according to the latest report by National Audit Office (NAO), which claims that Defra is now unable to deliver everything it originally intended for a ‘no-deal’ exit, though Defra maintains it still aims to have sufficient arrangements in place if needed.
In its report published today, the NAO has assessed how Defra is implementing its overall EU Exit portfolio and has assessed in detail four of Defra’s work streams covering environmental regulations for chemicals, the import and exports of animals and animal products and control of English fishing waters.
The report says that Defra has achieved a great deal in difficult circumstances and to a very demanding timescale. For example, Defra has: developed detailed plans for its preparations, secured HM Treasury approval for £320 million spending in 2018-19; started to build new IT systems; recruited over 1,300 new staff by March 2018; strengthened its project management capability; and published consultation documents on agriculture and fisheries.
However, despite these and other developments, the report says that the constantly changing environment has made it challenging for the department to make and stick to a robust plan and meet its project deadlines. It goes on to say the risk of Defra not delivering everything it had originally intended for a no deal scenario is high and, until recently, not well understood by the department. In the work streams the NAO examined it found the following examples where Defra would not be ready:
- For the UK to continue exporting animals and animal products, it must comply with international health requirements and all exports must be accompanied by an export health certificate. Defra needs to negotiate with 154 countries to introduce 1,400 different UK versions of current EU export health certificates. Defra is focusing on reaching agreement with 15 of these countries which it estimates account for 90% of total exports, but will not reach the other 139 by March 2019. It has accepted the risk that UK firms exporting to countries where agreements are not reached may not be able to do so for a period after EU Exit.
- Export health certificates will also be required for the first time for exports to the EU if there is no deal which will result in a significant increase in certificates needing to be processed by vets. Without enough vets, consignments of food could be delayed at the border or prevented from leaving the UK. Defra intended to start engaging with the veterinary industry in April 2018, but has not been permitted to do so and now plans to launch an emergency recruitment campaign in October to at least meet minimum levels of vets required. It plans to meet any remaining gaps through the use of non- veterinarians to check records and processes that do not require veterinary judgement.
The report also pointed out are further challenges that sit outside of Defra’s control:
- The UK’s chemical industry is the country’s second largest manufacturing sector with exports to the EU valued at £17 billion in 2017. The UK hopes to seek continued participation in the European Chemicals Agency, but this is dependent on a negotiated settlement. Without this, UK chemical manufacturers would no longer be able to export products to EU member states as registrations of products would cease to be recognised by the EU. To recover market access, they would need to re- register their products on the EU’s system via an affiliate or representative located in an EU member state. This is a lengthy process that cannot be started until the UK has left the EU.
- Due to the shortage of parliamentary time available, there is a high risk that Defra will not be able to deliver all of its legislation by March 2019. It has three new bills and 93 Statutory Instruments to convert EU law into UK law and is now having to prioritise.
- Defra has not been able to fully support businesses in their preparations. As a result of government restrictions, communicated through DExEU, it has not been able to hold open consultations with stakeholders on their preparations for a no-deal scenario. It has also, until very recently, been prevented from issuing specific information for the chemical industry or food importers and exporters.
Defra told the NAO in September 2018 that it was confident it could have alternative arrangements in place if the UK exits without a deal in March 2019. The NAO has recommended that Defra accelerates its planning for the withdrawal agreement while also finalising its contingency plans.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “The scale and complexity of what needs to be done to leave the EU is a significant challenge and Defra is impacted more than most. It has achieved a great deal, but gaps remain and with six months to go it won’t deliver all it originally intended in the event of no deal, and when gaps exist, it needs to focus on alternatives and mitigations.
“Like other departments, it now must ensure its voice is heard by the centre of government to provide an accurate picture of what is possible if a negotiated settlement is not reached, and even if it is.”
Commenting on the latest National Audit Office report into Defra’s Brexit preparations, Sue Pritchard, director of the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, said:“Given the complexity of the changes we’re going to make post-Brexit, it’s hardly surprising the NAO reached this conclusion.
“To its credit, Defra is embarking on an ambitious vision for food and the environment post-Brexit, but it’s clear from our Commission’s UK tour that the government must give serious thought and engage with all parts of the food and farming system. This will inevitably take time.
“A no deal Brexit would be catastrophic for many farming businesses and the environment. The government needs sufficient time to think seriously through life after 40 years of the Common Agricultural Policy.
“The real danger for all is rushing on the important details and locking the unintended consequences of bad policy into the system: it’s clear from our Commission that the UK public care very much about their food, where it comes from, and the countryside, and they have very high standards for its future post-Brexit.”