Britain’s spending watchdog has given a withering assessment on the Government’s Brexit preparations, warning there will be “points of failure” because even civil servants have been kept in the dark.
Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, told the Commons Brexit Select Committee that he had concerns about the readiness of Defra (the Department for the Environment), the Department of Transport and HM Revenue and Customs for the UK’s exit from the EU.
He said it was “not implausible” that aeroplane flights between the UK and EU would be grounded in any no-deal Brexit outcome.
Air travel could be severely disrupted either by “mistake” or intentionally if Brussels decided to withdraw the “goodwill” that Britain was relying on in such circumstances, the watchdog boss said.
Morse and a former Foreign Office chief also warned that the planned 21-month transition period for Britain quitting the 28-country bloc may not be long enough to get the right trade deal in place to avoid a “cliff edge” that would harm business.
The UK is due to formally leave the European Union on March 29 next year, but it plans to adopt the status quo in many areas of EU regulation until December 2020.
Two years since voters opted to leave the EU in the 2016 EU referendum, the Government has still failed to reveal its detailed programme for exit and faces a crunch EU summit next week.
MPs have repeatedly demanded detailed costings on various alternatives, only to be told to wait until this autumn.
Morse revealed that Whitehall staff had resorted to “using our reports to find out what’s been going on about Brexit”, adding that Government secrecy over its own plans had gone “too far”.
“If you’re asking people to be behind what you’re doing you need to make sure they do know what the overall enterprise is,” he told MPs.
The watchdog chief said that civil servants were putting in a lot of effort to get the country ready, but given the large number of risks, “there will be points of failure”.
Asked which Whitehall departments he was most worried about, Morse said he had concerns about both Michael Gove’s Defra department and Chris Grayling’s transport department.
Defra is one of the departments with the most Brexit issues to address, he said. And transport was an area where if there are risks that have not been addressed, “it will be highly visible and there will be very significant consequences”.
The DoT was “quite confident” about getting everything done on time, but Morse said he was worried they have “convinced themselves it is less risky than it actually is”.
Asked explicitly about the Government’s own assessment that a no deal outcome would dismantle common aviation rules and effectively ground flights between the UK and EU, Morse was frank.
It was not hard to imagine a scenario where the EU would not be well disposed towards the UK. The UK is relying on goodwill, he said.
Britain’s considerable chemical exports going to Europe would “just stop” if no goodwill or emergency arrangement is in place.
Pressed on whether the UK would have everything in place by the end of the transition in 2020, Morse replied: “I don’t think it will”.
In separate evidence, former Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser said that the Brexit transition period would have to be extended again or the UK would face a “cliff edge”.
A final deal was “a long way off” because the UK didn’t have any clarity about what it wanted to achieve, Sir Simon added.