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A report by the National Audit Office has found that The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has made good progress with its preparations for Brexit, but it still faces huge challenges, particularly when it comes to averting food and livestock delays at borders. Anna Tobin reports
The National Audit Office report on DEFRA’s Progress on Implementing Brexit has found that DEFRA will not be able to deliver everything it originally intended in the event of a no-deal Brexit, although DEFRA still says it aims to have sufficient arrangements in place if needed.
Covering chemicals and food, agriculture, fisheries and the environment, DEFRA is responsible for 55 of the 319 EU-related work streams across government and is one of the government departments most affected by Brexit.
The National Audit Office report assessed DEFRA’s work streams that cover environmental regulations for chemicals, the import and export of animals and animal products and the control of English fishing waters. It found that DEFRA has detailed plans for its Brexit preparations; secured HM Treasury approval for £320 million spending in 2018-19; started to build new IT systems; recruited over 1,300 new staff, as of March 2018; strengthened its project management capability; and, published consultation documents on agriculture and fisheries.
The uncertainty that remains around the terms of Brexit means that it has been hard for DEFRA to make and stick to a robust plan and meet its project deadlines, however. The National Audit Office stated: “The risk of DEFRA not delivering everything it had originally intended for a no-deal scenario is high and, until recently, not well understood by the department.”
The National Audit Office believes that there are key areas where DEFRA will not be adequately prepared for Brexit. These are:
The exports of animals and animal products
The UK animals and animal products export market is valued at £7.6 billion. For the UK to continue exporting, it must comply with international health requirements and all exports must be accompanied by an export health certificate. DEFRA needs to negotiate with 154 countries to introduce 1,400 different UK versions of current EU export health certificates. Unable to achieve this, the report states that DEFRA is focusing on reaching an agreement with 15 of these countries, which it estimates to account for 90% of total exports. It will not be able to negotiate with the other 139 countries by March 2019, this means that UK firms exporting to countries where agreements are not reached may not be able to do so for a period after the EU Exit.
Export health certificates
If there is no deal, for the first time animal exports to the EU will require export health certificates, which must be processed by vets. A shortage of vets could mean animal consignments are delayed at borders or prevented from leaving the UK. DEFRA planned to start working with the veterinary industry in April 2018, but has not been permitted to do so. It now plans to launch an emergency recruitment campaign in October to meet minimum levels of vets required.
The fishing industry
Contributing £682 million to the UK GDP, DEFRA is developing its plans to strengthen its control and enforcement activities in English fishing waters. It hopes to significantly increase vessel patrol hours, but delays in procurement and planning mean it is unlikely to reach its intended patrolling capacity by March 2019.
The chemical industry
With EU exports valued at £17 billion in 2017, the chemical industry is the UK’s second largest manufacturing sector. The UK hopes to seek continued participation in the European Chemicals Agency, but this is dependent on a negotiated settlement. Without this, UK chemical manufacturers would not be able to export to EU member states as registrations of products would no longer be recognised by the EU. To gain entry to the market, they would need to reregister their products on the EU’s system via an affiliate or representative located in an EU member state. This lengthy process cannot be begun until the UK has left the EU.
A shortage of parliamentary time means that there is a risk that DEFRA will not be able to deliver all of its legislation by March 2019. It has three new bills and 93 Statutory Instruments to convert EU law into UK law and is having to prioritise.
The National Audit Office report found that DEFRA has not been able to fully support businesses in their Brexit preparations and has not been able to hold open consultations with stakeholders on their preparations for a no-deal scenario. The Office has recommended that DEFRA accelerates its planning for the withdrawal agreement while also finalising its contingency plans. “The scale and complexity of what needs to be done to leave the EU is a significant challenge and DEFRA is impacted more than most,” says Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office.
“It has achieved a great deal, but gaps remain and with six months to go it won’t deliver all it originally intended in the event of no deal, and when gaps exist, it needs to focus on alternatives and mitigations. Like other departments, it now must ensure its voice is heard by the centre of Government to provide an accurate picture of what is possible if a negotiated settlement is not reached, and even if it is.”
The full report on DEFRA’s Progress in Implementing EU Exit can be downloaded here. In the last two years, the National Audit Office has published over a dozen reports on how the Government is preparing for Brexit. Further reports on the financial settlement, UK borders and how the government is implementing the EU Exit overall are due this year.