Government’s ‘Cold Turkey’ Brexit PreparationsOn Same Scale as COVID FailuresMPs Warn
Despite spending £4.4 billion on Brexit preparations, the Government has no overall plan says the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee
Boris Johnson’s planned Brexit in four weeks’ time will be more “cold turkey” than the ‘oven-ready’ deal he promised a year ago, according to the head of a parliamentary committee which today severely criticises the Government for not being adequately prepared for the UK leaving the EU – whether a deal is secured or not.
Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Pretending that things you don’t want to happen are not going to happen is not a recipe for government, it is a recipe for disaster. The lack of definite next steps and inability to secure a deal adds to the challenge. A year after the oven-ready deal, we have more of a cold turkey and businesses and consumers do not know what to be prepared for.”
The committee warned that it was extremely concerned about the “risk of serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings” because new border technology is not in place and has not been properly tested and lorry parks have not been fully completed.
It also said that the ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign – abandoned in 2019 – has still not reached a third of the companies, which believed in October that the transition period would still be extended. The Cabinet Office also had no idea whether the remaining two-thirds of businesses which were aware had fully complied with the new arrangements, it added. Many businesses still did not know what the final arrangements would be as it depends on whether a deal is reached or not.
The committee found that, despite spending £4.4 billion on Brexit preparations, the Government has no overall plan. It has also cut the number of civil servants working on the Brexit project from 22,000 to 15,000 and replaced many with more expensive management consultants. The committee compared this to the lack of an overall Government plan for the Coronavirus crisis.
It said: “The EU Exit and the COVID-19 response have shown up critical gaps in the Civil Service’s approach to planning, particularly for unexpected events or undesired outcomes. The Cabinet Office keeps a national risk register, with input from across government and particularly the Treasury, but recent events have shown up the limitations in this crucial governance system.
“Ministers specifically limited the amount of contingency planning the Civil Service was to carry out ahead of the EU Exit Referendum in 2016. This meant Government only began to formulate policy, negotiating positions and preparations after the vote. In its programme of work on COVID-19, the committee uncovered the shocking lack of economic planning for a pandemic, even though that risk has been on Government’s ‘most likely’ list for years.”
The committee went on to say that the Government does not know the full cost of Brexit.
“It did not have its own comprehensive information on government spending on EU Exit for 2019-20 or any earlier period, although it is now tracking information in-year for 2020-21,” it said. “It has relied on departmental processes to ensure money on EU Exit has been used as expected. Departments are expected to publish information on EU Exit spending in their 2019-20 Annual Reports, but these have been delayed due to COVID-19 and the Treasury has identified inconsistencies in what has been presented so far.”
In a letter to MPs, Alex Chisolm, permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, said that the Government had made “significant progress on changes needed to manage the border after the end of the transition period”.
He claimed that work was proceeding fast on the lorry parks and that internal testing of IT for border checks had started. But none of the projects had reached ‘green status’ – Whitehall jargon for being ready to use immediately. His letter also revealed that projects for new customs facilities at Birmingham Airport and Warrington were still behind schedule.
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