Government departments have been “too slow” to begin practical preparations to get the country ready for Brexit, a parliamentary report has warned.
With just 14 months to go, Whitehall has still not faced up to the need to reprioritise its work to be ready for Brexit day in March 2019, including halting other programmes so attention can be focused on EU withdrawal, said the report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Urgent action is needed to recruit staff, streamline decision-making and cut back on other commitments, said the committee, warning: “(The) real world will not wait for the Government to get its house in order.”
The committee’s deputy chairman, Leave-backing Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, said Brexit was “a byzantinely complicated task with the potential to become a damaging and unmanageable muddle”.
Departments “do not have the technical, project or senior leadership capacity for Brexit alongside all their other planned activity”.
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David Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) has identified 313 separate “workstreams” which will need to be completed and has focused on ensuring plans to deal with them are “up to scratch”, the report said.
But DExEU’s top civil servant, permanent secretary Philip Rycroft, told the committee in December that there was “a long road to go” to turn some of the plans into reality.
The report found DExEU has been “too slow” to ensure the plans are put into practice, warning that some “may not be sufficiently developed to enable implementation to start quickly”.
The committee called on Government to provide a formal update by June 1.
It said DExEU should publish details of the workstreams by April so MPs can scrutinise progress.
Sensitivities about the negotiation process “must not be used as an excuse for keeping the public and Parliament in the dark” about how preparations are going.
All departments should review their wider commitments by March this year and determine which must be ditched or delayed because of the burdens of preparing for Brexit, said the cross-party committee.
Details should be published in April of which projects have been “deprioritised” to make way for withdrawal preparations.
“Departments have still not faced up to the need to reprioritise existing activity to make space for Brexit,” said the report.
“It is clear that prioritisation has not been undertaken with the speed or on the scale needed and we have seen no evidence that departments have stopped any significant work.
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“This is worrying as departments do not have the technical, project or senior leadership capacity for Brexit alongside all their other planned activity.”
Neither DExEU nor the Cabinet Office have a “credible” plan to recruit the skilled people needed to deliver Brexit, the report found.
And it said decision-making and accountability were spread across Whitehall in a “potentially unwieldy and overly-complicated” bureaucracy.
Sir Geoffrey said: “It is one thing to identify the amount of work required to deliver Brexit. It is quite another to do it.
“It is concerning that Government departments still have so far to go to put their plans into practice.
“DExEU and the Cabinet Office accept the pace of work must accelerate, a point underlined by DExEU’s senior civil servant when he told us that there needs to be a ‘sharp focus on the world of the real’.
“That real world will not wait for the Government to get its house in order.”
A Government spokesman said there was a commitment to ensuring that the “right skills and resources are available across all departments”.
“We have built two new departments, the Department for Exiting the EU and the Department for International Trade, to help deliver a smooth and orderly exit from the European Union and forge new bold and ambitious trade agreements across the world,” the spokesman said.
“And we have repeatedly set out that we are determined to continue recruiting the brightest and the best talent from the public and private sectors and the capability of all departments is regularly reviewed.”
“This was made clear by Philip Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at DExEU, who told the Committee that resourcing in his department is kept under constant review, and that is not just about numbers; it is also about the sorts of people recruited by the Department.
“And we will continue to adapt as need arises.”