Ministers in a key government department have been accused of “operating in a parallel universe” while making plans for Brexit.
MPs who sit on the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have raised “grave concerns” about the capability of the department for business, energy and industrial strategy to cope with the UK’s exit from the EU.
It follows an investigation into its operations, which concluded the department has failed to re-order its priorities to deal with Brexit and has not hired enough experienced staff to manage the increasing tasks ahead.
Most departments are facing huge amounts of extra work both before and after the UK’s departure from the union in March 2019, with BEIS alone recruiting 350 extra staff.
Labour’s Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, said: “The department appears to be operating in a parallel universe where urgency is an abstract concept with no bearing on the Brexit process.
“It 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.
“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 select committee - considered one of Parliament’s most powerful - wants the Cabinet Office and Brexit department to hold an urgent review of processes and timelines for developing secondary Brexit legislation across all areas of the civil service and report back to MPs next month.
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, speaking on behalf of the Best For Britain campaign group lobbying for second referendum on the final Brexit deal, said its conclusions were “damning”.
“Ministers have failed to re-order the priorities of this crucial department, and in doing so have shown a shocking disregard for the consequences of this potentially monumental change for our economy,” she added.
“The lacklustre attitude of ministers is further evidence that we need a People’s Vote on any deal with the EU.
“It should be the British public’s democratic right to stop Brexit if, having seen the terms of the deal, they decide the national interest is better served by remaining inside the EU.”
Business minister Greg Clark has said the UK is “absolutely, unambiguously” leaving the EU, but that many organisations would need “time to adjust” to the new regime.
A spokesperson for BEIS said: “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.
“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.”