Government department plans were ‘unrealistic’ warned Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has warned in a new report

Defra and the Department for International Trade are “unprepared” for Brexit and face an “impossible challenge” when it comes to ensuring a smooth policy transition, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has warned in a new report.

Should the UK leave the single market and customs union, businesses and the economy would suffer unless there were clear alternatives in place immediately, PAC said, claiming the departments’ plans were “unrealistic”.

Implementing new programmes, especially IT systems, alongside new legislation while preparing for each of the ‘deal’, ‘no deal’ and ‘transition period’ outcomes would be extremely costly given the March 2019 deadline, PAC said in its report, Exiting the European Union: The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Department for International Trade.

PAC recommended the departments urgently set out lists of priorities along with key milestones by July to ensure realistic plans could be enacted before the deadline.

Defra told the committee it would rely on manual systems if need be, but PAC warned this could cause severe delays at the border affecting food and drink imports and exports.

PAC admitted Defra and the DIT’s preparations were hindered by the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, which had a knock-on effect, meaning businesses were also struggling to make plans.

“Defra alone has 64 active workstreams, up from 43 at the time we took evidence in March. DIT, formed in direct response to the EU referendum result, has mission-critical responsibilities,” said PAC chair, MP Meg Hillier.

“All departments have much to do. But we need to examine the substance of these work plans and I am not convinced more information from across Government cannot be provided now.”

Despite legislating on two new agriculture and fisheries bills, and targets to achieve savings of £138m in 2018-19 in addition to its usual remit, Defra was optimistic about delivering a smooth Brexit, regardless of the outcome, it told PAC.

But the committee pointed to delays on publishing the Fisheries White Paper as evidence the department was already behind in enacting plans for Brexit, while the late publication would leave little time for consultation before the introduction of the Bill.

Meanwhile, it found the DIT was leaning towards a free trade policy, but said there were “many uncertainties” remaining while no clear timetable was in place for changes.

Responding to the report, a government spokesman said: “The government has set a clear plan for Brexit and has made real progress delivering on this. We have already agreed the terms of an implementation period that will provide businesses with the continuity they need to prepare and thrive after we leave the EU.

“Work is being undertaken across the whole of government, in a range of exit scenarios in preparation for our withdrawal from the EU. Close collaboration between departments is vital as we negotiate our exit from the EU and develop our future trade policy with the world, and Whitehall is rising to the challenge.”