The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) face an unprecedented challenge in preparing for Brexit. Their preparations, however, are being hampered by the pervasive uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which leaves not only departments but also businesses in the dark about exactly what they need to do to prepare. This means that Defra, in particular, is having to work up options for the three different scenarios—deal, no deal or transition. This is time-consuming and costly. It also has to navigate new legislation and major IT programmes in very short time. At the time of our evidence session, less than a month before the start of the 2018–19 financial year, funding for departments’ EU Exit programmes had not yet been confirmed. This slow decision-making on the part of HM Treasury stands in the way of effective government preparation. We are concerned about how realistic the departments’ plans for Brexit are, especially where new IT systems are required. But both departments appear optimistic that they can deliver what’s required to be ready for March 2019, whatever the outcome of the negotiations. There is a lot at stake, a functioning trade policy is vital and if the UK leaves the single market and customs union there need to be clear alternatives in place or business and the economy will suffer. DIT appears to have adopted a free trade policy but business needs time to adapt and there are still many uncertainties with no clear timetable for changes. Defra has said it will fall back on to manual systems as it seeks to deliver all that it needs to for Brexit, but this could impede or at least slow down imports and exports causing severe delays at the border. Both departments have an impossible challenge and don’t have a clear plan of top priorities. They must be clear about what they will not be delivering as a result of Brexit.
Published: 4 May 2018