Defra '˜complacent' over Brexit preparations, watchdog finds

A key Government department has been accused of complacency by MPs over its Brexit readiness, findings which it flatly rejects.

Defra has been accused of doing too little to help food and farming businesses prepare for Brexit by the Public Accounts Committee.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) faces “enormous” challenges between now and March 29 with many of its plans hinging on co-operation from other Whitehall departments, the devolved administrations, agencies and goodwill from EU member states, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.

In a report, the watchdog committee said Defra is “too complacent” about disruption or interruption to trade that Brexit may bring, with key issues for food, chemical and animal imports and exports still unresolved.

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The committee found that little had changed in Defra’s approach over the last six months, with many businesses given no detailed advice on what Brexit requires because of its “very limited” engagement with stakeholders until recently.

Defra has now established a new directorate for business readiness and engagement but its focus has been on industry and representative groups, leaving businesses and organisations, especially SMEs, ill-prepared.

Defra rejected the findings.

A spokesperson for the department said: “We do not accept the PAC’s conclusions which fail to accurately reflect Defra’s preparations for leaving the EU.

“The PAC have ignored key findings from the National Audit Office, which found that ‘Defra has achieved a great deal and to a very demanding timescale’.

“In producing this one-sided report, the PAC have failed to acknowledge the substantial progress we have made in replacing EU functions, hiring key staff and building new IT systems.”

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In publishing today’s report, Meg Hillier MP, who chairs the PAC committee, said Defra was “a long way from being ready” and that she was concerned it had lost sight of its priorities.

“It is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare,” she said.

“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.”