1.There is a significant and growing risk that the Department will not be ready if the UK exits the EU without a deal. The Department tells us that there is little, if any, contingency left to cope with slippage amongst the 28 internal projects it has underway. The Department is dependent upon decisions being taken elsewhere in government and on the state of discussions with other countries to progress some of its plans. Projects such as the issue of permits to international drivers and road hauliers are however within its control. The Department has several IT systems related to these projects to develop and deliver within the next few weeks and months, and IT systems are notoriously difficult for government to deliver on time. The Department also acknowledges that air services and international rail travel are areas where discussions with other countries are at a very early stage.
2.Recommendation: The Department should write to the Committee before Christmas 2018 to set out progress achieved against its 28 projects, and which projects remain at greatest risk.
3.The Department’s preparations for avoiding disruption around major ports are worryingly under-developed. The Department will manage traffic and lorry-queuing at Dover through ‘Project Brock’. The Department has plans to do some desk-based testing around its operation of Project Brock, although it has yet to carry it out. The Department seems happy to rely on Highways England to manage engagement with local stakeholders, but acknowledges this has not always worked well so far. The Department does not liaise directly with other English ports and their related local authorities, which it informs us is the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Department has begun in-depth discussions with the Welsh Government, but not the Scottish Government.
4.Recommendation: The Department should write to the Committee before Christmas 2018 setting out the results of any testing of Project Brock, and how wider plans to keep ports across the UK open for business have progressed.
5.There is a danger that the required legislation will neither be subject to proper scrutiny, nor passed in time for EU exit. The Department’s figures on how many SIs need to be passed by Parliament before the end of March 2019 (currently 66) are changing regularly and may change further. It had laid 19 of these 66 before Parliament by 24 October. The Department says that around half of its SIs will require debate, but that it is looking at ways to reduce this to speed up progress. We are concerned that there is a risk that the scope for Parliamentary scrutiny could be reduced for the sake of administrative convenience. The Department regards 61 as essential to be delivered before the end of March 2019, but could not explain what would happen if they weren’t laid in time. We identified the same issues with the volume of legislation required in such a short space of time in our recent report on preparedness for EU exit at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
6.Recommendation: As recommended in our recent report on Defra’s preparations, The Cabinet Office should prioritise EU statutory instruments across government to ensure the drafting of those of highest priority is completed to the proper quality standard, and that there is time for proper parliamentary scrutiny ahead of EU Exit.
7.The Department’s approach to its preparations appears complacent. The Department told us that it was happy with progress on four of the projects where we probed further on progress (maritime databases, International Driving Permits (IDPs), the trailer registration scheme and road haulage permits), but its answers were short on detail and suggested a heavy reliance on assurance from officials in its arms-length bodies, such as Highways England with regard to Project Brock. We were left concerned that the Department remains prone to the optimism bias that we have witnessed on other projects overseen by this Department.
8.Recommendation: The Department should make sure that it receives regular independent assurance on the progress of key projects. As part of its update to the Committee, the Department should set out how it is drawing on independent assurance that progress is being made, and the action it has taken as a result.
9.Too much consultation with business organisations has taken place under the cloak of non-disclosure agreements, and this secrecy hampers the ability of the business community at large to prepare. The Department acknowledges that key industries are seeking information to be able to develop their own contingency plans, such as the potential need for road hauliers to vary their routes or point of entry to Europe. Businesses may have to change the way they register trailers or apply for road haulage permits. Yet it appears that in making its preparations, the Department has had limited engagement with the business community at large, either in developing or testing plans. The Department’s engagement with the transport industry in developing technical notices has been covered by non-disclosure agreements and the Department is unable to inform us of their scope. We see these agreements as undermining transparency and hampering the spread of information to the business community at large. Again, we raised this concern in our recent report on preparedness for EU exit at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
10.Recommendation: As we recommended in our recent report on Defra’s preparations, the Department needs to limit the use of non-disclosure agreements to commercially sensitive discussions. It should urgently step up its communications with businesses and other stakeholders on what they need to do to prepare.
11.The Department’s continuing caution in its public communication about EU Exit means the public and businesses cannot prepare adequately if there is no deal. The Department acknowledges that communication needs to improve, as we have seen from examples such as the concerns caused by Highways England’s work on the M26. While some actions may only be needed in the event of ‘no deal’, time is running short and we expect that groups, such as people planning to drive in the EU after March 2019, should be made aware that action will be needed soon, even if it is not yet clear what that action will be. The Department emphasises the role of third parties in disseminating information (for example, hire companies or Post Office staff issuing International Driving Permits), but has not provided detail on how it is co-ordinating this work.
12.Recommendation: The Department should write to the Committee before Christmas 2018 setting out the progress made against its plans for providing the public and businesses with the information they need.
Published: 28 November 2018