British exports of animal products to 139 countries may grind to a halt in the event of a no deal Brexit, according to a damning report from the government’s public spending watchdog.
The report from the National Audit Office into preparations by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for implementing the UK’s exit from the EU also warned that the country faced a shortage of vets, diminishing time for new legislation, and a lack of vessels to patrol English fishing waters.
The risk of Defra not delivering everything it had intended for a no-deal scenario was “high and, until recently, not well understood by the department”, the NAO said, while the Department for Exiting the EU had restricted Defra’s ability to support businesses as they prepared for Brexit.
Its report found that, in its work covering environmental regulations for chemicals, the import and export of animals and animal products, and control of fishing waters, Defra had “achieved a great deal in difficult circumstances and to a very demanding timescale”.
This included securing £320m of funding, new IT systems, and recruiting more than 1,300 new staff.
But the NAO said, the “constantly changing” environment had made it challenging for Defra to formulate and stick to a robust plan and meet its deadlines.
The areas where Defra remained unprepared included the need to negotiate with 154 countries to introduce 1,400 different UK versions of current EU health certificates to accompany exports of animals and animal products.
The NAO said Defra was focused on reaching agreement with 15 countries representing 90 per cent of total exports, but would not reach the other 139 by March 2019, when the UK is due to leave the EU.
“[Defra] 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,” the NAO said.
The UK’s animal and animal product exports are worth £7.6bn.
The NAO also found that Defra was unlikely to have strengthened its control and enforcement activities in English fishing waters by March 2019 as planned, meaning there would not be enough vessel patrolling capacity by the time the UK left the EU.
In addition, due to the shortage of parliamentary time between now and March 2019, the NAO said there was a “high risk” that Defra would not be able to deliver all of the necessary legislation by March 2019. The department had three new bills and 93 statutory instruments to convert from EU into UK law.
The report said that Defra had been unable “to fully support businesses in their preparation”.
“As a result of government restrictions, communicated through Dexeu, it has not been able to hold open consultations with stakeholders on their preparations for a no-deal scenario,” the NAO said.
“It has also, until very recently, been prevented from issuing specific information for the chemical industry or food importers and exporters.”
Defra is one of the departments most affected by Brexit, and is responsible for 55 of the 319 EU-related work streams across government, covering the chemical and agri-food industries, agriculture, fisheries and the environment.
The NAO found that only six of 43 work stream plans had fully complied with Defra’s standards by April 2018.
Amyas Morse, NAO head, said the scale and complexity of what needs to be done to leave the EU was a significant challenge and Defra was 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 a no deal.”
Sir Amyas said that, like other departments, Defra “must now 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”.
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