Defra is "too complacent" about potential disruption to trade and fundamental issues for farming businesses remain, according to a new report.
The department faces "enormous challenges" in the lead-up to EU exit and, with the deadline of 29 March 2019 looming, still does not know which scenario it is preparing for, the House of Commons report says.
There is also a "high level of risk" in the department’s portfolio, with many of its plans dependent on co-operation from other departments, the devolved administrations and agencies and the goodwill of EU member states.
The Committee of Public Accounts' (PAC) new report 'Defra’s progress towards Brexit' states that many businesses have not been given detailed advice on what is required by an EU exit, as the department has had "very limited engagement" with stakeholders until recently.
The report, published on Wednesday (14 November), says that as a consequence of Defra's "enormous task", many small-to-medium sized businesses are "unaware" and "ill-prepared".
Despite this, the department has made "good progress" in drafting the 86 statutory instruments it must prepare, with three-quarters of them either fully drafted or near completion.
However, the amount of parliamentary time that these, and those of other departments, will require is "daunting", according to the report.
'Lost sight of priorities'
PAC Chair, Meg Hillier MP, says Defra is a "long way" from being ready to leave the European Union.
She says: “In the continued uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, Defra’s civil servants must prepare for multiple and in some cases ill-defined scenarios.
“Anyone working in the dark is prone to stumble but in Defra’s case I am concerned that the Department has lost sight of its priorities.
“The risks associated with ‘no-deal’ in particular are severe, and it is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare.
Ms Hillier adds: “Brexit border planning is not sufficiently developed, six critical IT systems are still to be tested and there is a risk that in the Department’s rush to prepare necessary legislation, the quality of that legislation will suffer.
“Defra is up against it but there is more it must do to assure Parliament, businesses and the wider public that it has a firm grip on its responsibilities,” she says.
'No deal' export issue
One 'no-deal' scenario PAC's report looked at is the risk of UK exports of animals and animal products being delayed at borders because of a shortage of vets.
In the event of a no-deal exit, the UK’s continued exports of animals and animal products to EU member states will for the first time need to be accompanied by export health certificates.
Individual vets would probably take on such work on an ad hoc basis alongside their existing work, so the actual number of people required will be many more than 50 and the department is cavalier about enough suitably qualified staff to take on this work being available.
It believes that the training investment of around six hours online would not be a barrier to uptake, and that its requirements can be easily sourced from a pool of over 6,000 potential candidates in the private sector.
However, the report says Defra has failed to consider the geographic distribution of vets and their willingness to take on this additional work.
At present the UK only allows this work to be undertaken by vets and although the department is discussing this with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, no resolution has been reached that would extend the candidate pool.
PAC is concerned that the increased demand for veterinary services will increase costs to UK exporters.