The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has made good progress in its preparations for exiting the EU, but it faces an ‘enormous challenge’, says the National Audit Office (NAO).
The NAO said It believes the government is now not able to deliver everything it originally intended for a ‘no-deal’ exit, though Defra still aims to have sufficient arrangements in place if needed.
In its report published today, the NAO has assessed how Defra is implementing its overall EU Exit portfolio and has assessed in detail four of Defra’s work streams covering environmental regulations for chemicals, the import and exports of animals and animal products and control of English fishing waters.
The NAO said 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”. In the work streams the NAO examined it found the following examples where Defra would not be ready:
- Exports of animals and animal products from the UK are valued at £7.6bn. 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. Defra is focusing on reaching agreement with 15 of these countries which it estimates account for 90% of total exports, but will not reach the other 139 by March 2019. It has accepted the risk that UK firms exporting to countries where agreements are not reached may not be able to do so for a period after EU Exit.
- Export health certificates will also be required for the first time for exports to the EU if there is no deal which will result in a significant increase in certificates needing to be processed by vets. Without enough vets, consignments of food could be delayed at the border or prevented from leaving the UK. Defra intended to start engaging with the veterinary industry in April 2018, but has not been permitted to do so and now plans to launch an emergency recruitment campaign in October to at least meet minimum levels of vets required. It plans to meet any remaining gaps through the use of non-veterinarians to check records and processes that do not require veterinary judgement.
- The fishing industry contributes £682m to UK gross domestic product. Defra is still developing its plans to strengthen its control and enforcement activities in English fishing waters. Defra hopes to significantly increase vessel patrol hours, but due to delays in procurement and planning is unlikely to reach its originally intended patrolling capacity by March 2019. In a no-deal scenario, Defra may have to scale up its capacity over time, but is confident that it will be able to manage the risk of any disruption in the interim.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “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. 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.”