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Brexit poses 'daunting challenge' for civil servants, MPs warn

The Government’s spending watchdog says more than 300 projects and hundreds of new laws are needed to prepare for Brexit

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Friday 17 November 2017 01:59 GMT

Whitehall departments will struggle to cope with the “daunting challenge” of preparing for Brexit, the chair of an influential Commons committee has warned.

Meg Hillier, who heads up the Public Accounts Committee, cast doubt over whether civil servants could deliver more than 300 projects and hundreds of new laws in time for Britain’s exit from the bloc and warned that non-Brexit-related business could be “neglected” by swamped officials.

Her warning came as the Government’s spending watchdog published a briefing laying bare the scale of the task ahead, with much of the burden falling on medium-sized departments such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report said up to 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation need to pass through Parliament before exit day in March 2019 and Brexit officials had warned all departments there was “minimal room” to consider other statutory instruments.

All departments must plan for “no-deal scenarios”, the NAO added.

It comes as Theresa May prepared to meet EU Council President Donald Tusk on Friday ahead of a make-or-break deadline on the progress of talks.

Meanwhile the key Brexit legislation could be shelved until after Christmas as the Prime Minister was faced with a growing Tory revolt on plans to enshrine the exit date in law.

Ms Hillier, responding to the briefing, said: “This document lays bare the daunting challenge faced by the Civil Service in coordinating Brexit.

“I question whether Whitehall has the ability to deliver the 313 projects and hundreds of new laws it says are needed. There is a risk that anything non-Brexit related will be neglected.

“This raises the issue of whether DExEU, Treasury and the Cabinet Office are really doing enough to ensure government departments aren’t overwhelmed, and can continue to deliver the vital public services we are all relying on, alongside a smooth exit from the EU.”

Brexit Secretary David Davis recently told the Cabinet that more than 3,000 extra civil servants had been taken on to boost work towards leaving the EU, with a further 5,000 expected next year.

A Government spokesperson said: “This report shows the good work that’s been undertaken across the whole of government to support our withdrawal from the EU.

“Close collaboration between departments is vital as we negotiate our exit, and Whitehall is rising to the challenge.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely throughout the process to ensure we have the right resource, in the right place, at the right time.”

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