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UK Government secrecy hindered preparations for leaving EU – UK report

By Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent

Secrecy about the UK Government’s Brexit negotiating objectives hindered preparations for the UK’s exit from the European Union, according to a new report.

The efforts also took a heavy toll on the UK Civil Service with a high turnover among senior staff, with more than 22,000 workers deployed across Whitehall departments on the preparations which cost £4.4 billion.

The findings have emerged in a study by the National Audit Office (NAO) which examined the lessons to be learned from the UK Government’s attempts to ready the country for Brexit following the 2016 Leave referendum result.

Meanwhile, members of the logistics industry have warned the UK Government the supply chain “will be severely disrupted” next year if “significant gaps” in UK border plans are not resolved before Brexit.

Eight logistics organisations including the Road Haulage Association have written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove requesting a meeting about technological and infrastructure concerns, according to a copy of the letter seen by the Financial Times.

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokeswoman Christine Jardine said the NAO report was evidence the Tories had made a “dog’s dinner” of Britain’s divorce from Europe.

“How Boris Johnson ever thought he could get a deal by the end of July with the chaos behind the scenes in Whitehall is beyond me,” said the MP.

“Even he must realise the dog’s dinner he has made of Brexit.”

Meg Hillier MP, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, said ministers must ensure such mistakes are not repeated.

The publication of the document comes as Prime Minister Mr Johnson’s administration faces mounting criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic on matters such as the initial lockdown delay, deaths in care homes and the handling of exam results following school closures.

The 23-page NAO report said the secrecy maintained by the Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu), which was disbanded after the UK left the trade bloc on January 31 and entered a transition period, did not aid cross-government working.

“Dexeu kept a tight hold on communications, keeping secret anything which might pertain to the UK’s negotiating position,” the NAO said.

“This instinct for secrecy in government can get in the way of effective coordination, collaboration and a sense of urgency in progressing towards a common goal.”

The Learning For Government From EU Exit Preparations report noted that, despite extensions to the Article 50 exit period, “many key systems were not expected to be ready for day one of EU exit”.

It also said there was “limited work” before the EU referendum in 2016 to identify the impact of loosening ties with the UK’s biggest trading partner.

Staffing proved a particular issue for a political and economic event that impacted almost every strand of government, with 22,000 civil servants working on Brexit ahead of the delayed October 31 2019 deadline.

The UK had originally been due to leave on March 29 2019 but an extension was sought by then prime minister Theresa May.

The report, published on Friday, said: “Staff turnover in EU exit roles, and particularly in Dexeu itself, was higher than for the Civil Service in general.

“The problem was particularly acute at more senior grades. In its less than four years in existence, Dexeu had three permanent secretaries.

“Other departments most affected by (the) EU exit have also seen changes at permanent secretary level, including Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and HMRC.”

By October 2019, more than 1,500 people had been temporarily loaned to Dexeu from other departments in a scale of Civil Service redeployment not seen before, the NAO said.

In the report, Mr Johnson came in for praise for reconfiguring the “complex” decision-making structures in place under his predecessor Mrs May following his arrival in Downing Street in July 2019.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Preparing for EU exit continues to be a highly complex and challenging task for Government and stakeholders.

“Government can draw on this learning in preparing for the end of the transition period and beyond, and in managing other cross-government challenges including its response to Covid-19 and net zero.”

Labour politician Ms Hillier said: “The Government took too long to get to grips with the challenge it was facing, and the risks of working at such a fast pace.

“It didn’t collect enough information about the people and money it was committing to Brexit preparations, and couldn’t assess whether it was striking the right balance between its priorities.

“It must not make these mistakes again when weighing up how best to allocate resources between the pandemic response, Brexit and its other priorities.”

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