Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee raises serious concerns around recruitment and information sharing at three of the country’s key watchdogs

Key UK regulators covering food and chemical safety are “fumbling around in the dark” after Brexit, the chair of an influential parliamentary committee has said.

Labour’s Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, made the comments in relation to a new National Audit Office (NAO) report revealing how three regulators have been cut off from EU safety data and cannot recruit enough qualified staff to do their job in protecting the public from food risks and chemical safety.

The NAO looked at three regulators – the Food Standards Agency (FSA); the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA); and the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) role in chemicals regulation.

After the UK left the EU, the three regulators had to build – from scratch – new regulatory systems and recruit hundreds of qualified staff to run them. The report reveals that they failed to find enough vets and toxicologists to do the job and had to introduce five-year training programmes to get new staff properly qualified.

Just Imagine if the EU wasBehaving as the UK Is

Chris Grey

All three regulators have lost access to data and information sharing arrangements with EU regulators, which they say has negatively impacted their ability to assess risks and carry out their work. Discussions between the EU and the UK on how to improve co-operation have not yet started.

The FSA has lost full access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, which it used to exchange information about food safety risks and responses across the EU. Instead civil servants now have to scour public announcements to find out about food safety risks abroad. The report says it requires around 65% more resource to deliver the same international information exchange on food safety incidents now than it did using the EU system.

The FSA has been hit with an upsurge, from an expected 150 to 428 new products needing approval. It is also being hit by getting very little advance notice of new EU food safety regulations which have to be implemented in Northern Ireland under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Meanwhile, changes at the CMA have affected consumer protection.

“The UK also no longer has a legal gateway to share confidential data with the EU and member states on consumer protection cases,” the report states. “This means that… a French consumer enforcement agency that is taking forward a case that has affected UK consumers no longer has the legal means to share details of its investigation with CMA.”

The regulation of chemicals has also been affected, with the HSE having to extend expired licences for some chemicals because it no longer has access to EU data on them.

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“The cost of replicating testing data has been estimated at up to £800 million by industry,” the report says. “To address these concerns, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs extended the deadlines set in the initial transitional provisions for companies to meet the full data requirements to between October 2023 and October 2027.”

Hillier said that Brexit has “heaped more work onto UK regulators” but progress is “hampered by shortfalls in skills and the door being closed on EU data sharing”.

“There is a building tension between the high-minded talk of new Brexit freedoms and what it means in practice for regulation,” she added. “Clear long-term strategies are needed to avoid short-term wasted effort. Government must clearly light the way to prevent regulators fumbling around in the dark.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said that Brexit has had a “major impact” on UK regulators.

“It is essential that regulators and policy-makers develop their future strategies as soon as possible to avoid wasting effort on short-term work and to ensure the decisions they make now meet their longer-term goals,” he added.

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