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'Rushed, risky and over-optimistic': Damning report on UK no-deal Brexit planning

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter

The UK border is not ready for Brexit, MPs say. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

The UK government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit have been “rushed”, “risky” and “over-optimistic,” according to a damning report by MPs.

The influential public accounts committee says it is not convinced government departments are ready to leave the European Union on 29 March without a deal.

It says transport minister Chris Grayling’s department has failed to secure the freight capacity Britain may need to move critical goods, and there is now no longer enough time to solve the problem before Britain’s planned exit date.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee and a Labour MP, warned the government’s rushed and risky planning must not become the “new normal,” despite Brexit being an unprecedented challenge for officials.

‘Rushed and risky’ ferry saga

The committee’s latest report, published today, accuses the department for transport of “rushed and risky” efforts to secure ferry operators because it was left too late.

It says this rush led to the Seaborne View saga, with the department forced to terminate the contract with the firm, which had no ships, when its backer pulled out.

READ MORE: Government scraps contract Seaborne Freight’s no-deal ferry contract

The committee found government officials had no written assurance Seaborne Freight actually had a shipping partner until after the contract was agreed and signed.

The report also says Eurotunnel’s legal challenge over the contract, which saw the UK pay out a £33m settlement, “gives the impression that the department did not sufficiently engage and manage” stakeholders in the bidding process.

‘Time has now run out’

Transport secretary Chris Grayling has been dubbed 'failing Grayling'. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images
Transport secretary Chris Grayling has been dubbed ‘failing Grayling’. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images

The department’s allegedly insufficient action so far means “time has now run out” to secure additional rail or air freight capacity, despite the department for transport itself recommending them in November last year.

Transport officials were “over-optimistic” about the amount of freight capacity it could secure, and have now failed to guarantee the amount needed in the event of border delays linked to a no-deal Brexit, the MPs said.

“Despite being aware that the ferry industry would need time to put in place additional capacity, the Department did not start serious preparations to procure this additional capacity until September 2018, just six months before the UK is due to leave the EU,” the report read.

‘Over-optimism’ on food shortages

The committee said the inadequate freight capacity could mean difficult decisions about which goods to prioritise, but priorities had not yet been clearly identified.

The department for the environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) also came in for criticism, accused of “over-optimism” in assuming there would be no food shortages and that it did not believe it needed to take any specific action to prevent them.

READ MORE: Brexit can still be delayed, cancelled or no-deal despite May’s agreement

The department’s assumptions come in spite of the fact it does not even expect food to be treated as a priority on the additional capacity that has been secured by transport officials.

Defra’s engagement with key stakeholders had also been “slow off the mark,” the report said, with guidance for the UK chemicals industry only published less than two months before Brexit.

“We are unconvinced that the departments are prepared for the practical challenges that no deal would bring, particularly in managing the flow of priority goods,” the MPs’ report concluded.