Theresa May's government is using 'blanket secrecy' to hide its no-deal Brexit plans

Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesUK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
  • MPs have run out of time to force the government to publish details of over 320 Brexit “workstreams.”
  • The workstreams – spread across nearly 20 government departments – are intended to make sure the United Kingdom is ready for all outcomes on exit day, March 29. This includes no-deal.
  • The government still refuses to publish details of whether these workstreams are on track.
  • “It’s secrecy for secrecy’s sake and Brexit has become the excuse for that,” senior MP Meg Hillier, who has been pushing for ministers to be more transparent about its Brexit work, told Business Insider.
  • The government insists that the information is sensitive and cannot be made public.

LONDON – Heaps of information on how prepared the UK government is for a no-deal Brexit are being deliberately kept secret from MPs, who have spent months trying to little avail to make ministers more transparent on their plans for leaving the European Union.

Since the 2016 referendum, the government has revealed minimal information about the 320-plus “workstreams” which it set up across nearly twenty departments to prepare the UK for a possible no-deal Brexit on March 29.

These Whitehall units are working on arguably the biggest government project seen since World War 2. However, despite Brexit being just weeks away, MPs have hardly any information on the progress these workstreams.

“It’s pretty mad,” a source close to government’s Brexit planning told Business Insider this week.

“We know next to nothing about government readiness for no-deal and the information we do have is piecemeal… We are six weeks away [from March 29] and we don’t know if systems will be ready in time.”

These workstreams cover all aspects of the UK’s readiness for leaving the EU and are supposed to be ready in time for the growing possibility of there being no Brexit Withdrawal Agreement at the end of March.

They cover borders, medicines, food, haulage and almost every other area affected by Brexit you can think of.

We know next to nothing about government readiness for no-deal.

The National Audit Office has published rudimentary information on what these workstreams are up to.

However, this was in early-2018, and fell way short of the information requested by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC.) In May 2018, PAC wrote to the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) to say that the “quantity and depth of information” which ministers had provided on workstreams “falls short of the Committee’s expectations.”

That was ten months ago. Since then, the only new information has come either through media leaks or civil servants answering questions put to them by parliamentary committees, an example being the recent admission that officials had “run out of time” to secure ships for importing emergency supplies in a no-deal scenario.

PAC chair Meg Hillier told BI this week that the committee had abandoned its original mission of forcing the government to publish details on all of its workstreams, as there simply wasn’t enough time left.

“We’re now focused on getting a few rather than the overall principle of getting them all out there because time is running out. It’s after the fact now, because we are so close to leaving. We’ve had to stop pursuing them all,” she said.

It’s secrecy for secrecy’s sake and Brexit has become the excuse for that.

PAC is using the time it has left to focus on priority departments – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Department for Transport, and HM Revenue and Customs. There were 42 days until Brexit at the time of writing.

“The key thing is openness and transparency,” Hillier told BI.

“Yes a negotiation is going on and some information is sensitive. But not all of it is like that. It’s not all top-secret stuff. There are few sensitive bits in regards to national security but really not that much.”

The MP Hackney South & Shoreditch added: “It’s been a blanket secrecy approach.

“They have used non-disclosure agreements in an extraordinary way on all sorts of companies. It’s secrecy for secrecy’s sake and Brexit has become the excuse for that.”

Meg HillierYouTube/Sky NewsMeg Hillier MP.

An unprecedented culture of secrecy

For major projects, the UK government usually discloses information on progress, risk, and cost on a regular basis. At least once a year. This is especially the case for projects involving high-cost and potential reputational damage.

For example, when government departments were preparing the country for the Olympic Games in 2012, ministers regularly updated MPs on workstreams, their cost and whether they’d be ready on time.

However, there is an “eagerness to not talk about the workstreams,” a source familiar with Brexit preparation told BI, adding: “The government is not coming clean with parliament on the readiness for no-deal.”

The secrecy is part of a tightly-controlled, top-down approach to Brexit preparation, multiple sources told BI, with the Cabinet Office instructing departments to keep their work under wraps.

The source added: “All of the information is centrally collected in the Department for Exiting the EU. A team in DExEU is doing this. All of this information exists at the centre of government.”

Government figures insist that revealing this information would undermine the government’s negotiating hand.

Julie Ward – a Labour MEP for North West England – in December submitted Freedom Of Information requests to all 14 UK government departments which are working on Brexit workstreams. All 14 were denied.

She told BI: “By not publishing the workstreams, it seems like they have something to hide and the government usually does when it comes to Brexit. Frankly, the abdication of responsibility and lack of accountability has been at the very heart of this government since the referendum, to the detriment of the UK economy and our people.”

She added: “The government must now release all of the 320+ workstreams and lay out across each Whitehall department if it is ready for Brexit or a no-deal scenario. If the UK is not ready then we must immediately ask the EU for an extension to Article 50 and take no deal off the table.”

Shadow Brexit minister and Labour MP Jenny Chapman told BI: “The government should take no deal off the table and stop wasting time and money on an outcome no one wants.”

A DExEU spokesperson told BI: “As part of its co-ordination work DExEU has processes in place to track and assess the delivery of the Government’s Brexit plans. As details of these assessments contain sensitive information related to negotiations we will not be making them public.”

DoverGareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images

Last week, BI reported growing anger with ministers allegedly forcing dozens of statutory instruments through Parliament relating to Brexit, without proper, if any, scrutiny from MPs.The workstreams are just one example of government secrecy on Brexit which is causing increasing concern.

A leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for a new referendum, Chuka Umunna MP, told BI: “The Government is engaged in a systematic attempt to hide the realities of Brexit from the public – it is a disgrace that, with just 6 weeks to go until Brexit day, Parliament and the public still don’t know whether systems or plans are fully in place to deal with the consequences.

He added: “Ministers are engaged in a cynical attempt to lead the public into a blindfold Brexit, with none of the major issues resolved and with Brexit set to dominate the national agenda for years to come.”

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