'Operating in a parallel universe' -- The UK government is failing to prepare business for Brexit

Leon Neal/Getty ImagesGreg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
  • An influential group of MPs has “grave concerns” about the business department’s readiness for Brexit.
  • The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has made “virtually no attempt to re-order its priorities” with less than a year to go until Britain leaves the European Union.
  • The Greg Clark-led department lacks the staff and IT systems to deliver heaps of Brexit-related work, according to a report published by the Public Accounts Committee.

LONDON – The UK government’s business department is “operating in a parallel universe” where it does not have the priorities, staff, or IT systems to deliver Brexit, according to a damning report published by MPs on Wednesday.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) “has made virtually no attempt to re-order its priorities” in a report into how the department is coping with Brexit.

The cross-party group of MPs has “grave concerns” about the department’s “complacency” in preparing for Britain’s exit from the European Union, the report says. BEIS is responsible for around a fifth of the government’s Brexit work.

The damning PAC report comes as UK negotiators sit down with their European negotiators in an attempt to reach an agreement on the post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the European Union.

The report urges Theresa May’s government and particularly the Greg Clark-led business department to be much more urgent in how it is preparing for Britain’s formal exit from the EU in March 2019.

“We reported in February 2018 that departments across government have yet to face up to the need to re-prioritise existing activity to make space for Brexit work,” the report,which you can read here, explains.

“Our concern is reinforced by hearing that the Department has not taken steps to re-prioritise its work – despite it now being responsible for 68 of the 300-plus work streams that departments need to complete.

“The Department’s Brexit workload will only increase as it moves from planning to implementation, but the Department insists that there is very little of its workload it can stop or postpone, and that it expects to deliver all of the policies that fall within its remit.”

The PAC report expresses concern about two specific areas of the department’s Brexit planning – staff and IT systems.

On staff, it says that although the department has hired 90% of the staff it needs to carry out its Brexit work this year, its workforce “lacks the required level of experience and expertise” to deliver complex Brexit-related policies.

This is a problem in other government departments. Earlier this month, BI reported that the Home Office was lacking experienced civil servants who are able of making complex decisions about post-Brexit immigration.

“It’s quite easy to bulk up capacity by recruiting low to mid-level civil servants, often generalists with a few years experience,” the Institute For Government’s Joe Owen told BI.

“But it’s more difficult hiring the more experienced civil servants who are going to be making the big decisions and working out how to manage trade-offs. They’re not easy to find.”

Greg clarkParliament.uk

Secondly, the department needs at least 12 new IT systems to deliver Brexit. However, as of January, it had begun work on none of these systems, the report says, despite all of them being necessary for the possible event of no-deal.

“TheDepartment for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy appears to be operating in a parallel universe where urgency is an abstract concept with no bearing on the Brexit process,” PAC Chair Meg Hillier MP said.

“The Department is responsible for around a fifth of the work streams the Government must complete as the UK leaves the EU. It is an extremely important, challenging and time-sensitive workload.

“Yet the Department told us it had not re-prioritised its overall programme of work, had not begun procurement for around a dozen essential digital systems and could not provide vital information about its workforce.

“We have grave concerns about this apparent complacency, compounded by the lack of transparency on the Department’s progress with what in some cases will be critical projects.”

She added: “Sensitivities around negotiations with the EU must not be used as an excuse to keep taxpayers and Parliament in the dark. We urge the Government to provide us with a swift update on the issues raised in our report.”

The report adds that the department will be required to get large volumes of Brexit-related legislation through Parliament, a feat which PAC believes is unlikely to be achieved based on current cross-department processes.

There is also concern about transparency and how much of the department’s Brexit planning is being withheld from necessary scrutiny.

“There is a lack of information on the Department’s 68 work streams,” the report says, “including which of them are considered critical and whether projects are being delivered in line with expectations.”

A spokesperson for BEIS said that the department has received funding and hired extra staff to help deal with the challenge of Brexit since the report was written.

“Along with the whole of government, BEIS is focused on getting the best deal for the UK and ensuring a smooth transition for businesses, consumers and workers,” they said.

“Since this report was written, BEIS has received £185m of extra funding to help deliver a successful Brexit by employing an increased number of staff on our Europe work, identifying the most pressing legislative challenges and remaining ahead of schedule by recruiting high-calibre staff to ensure we prepare thoroughly and effectively.”

Caroline Lucas, Green Party co-leader and supporter of anti-Brexit group Best For Britain, accused the department of showing a “shocking disregard” for the potential consequences of leaving the EU.

“The lacklustre attitude of ministers is further evidence that we need a people’s vote on any deal with the EU,” she told BI. “We should give the people a chance to halt Brexit if when they see the detail of the deal, they decide the national interest is better served by remaining inside the EU.”

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