The government relies “too much” on management consultants for work on Brexit preparations “that could be better done by civil servants”, the select committee on government spending has warned.
In a wide-ranging report published today, the Public Accounts Committee slammed the government’s negligence of civil servants in preparing for Brexit, amid warnings that ministers are “taking limited responsibility” for the UK’s exit from the EU.
“[The] government continues to spend too much on consultants to undertake work that could be better done by civil servants, and does not do enough to utilise or develop skills and experience in-house,” the report said.
“Four and a half years after the Brexit vote, with preparations for EU exit costing £4.4bn so far and involving 22,000 civil servants — and many more paid consultants — the UK still faces the risk of serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings.
It comes after documents released in October showed that management consultancies have been awarded more than £180m to deliver Brexit, as the government faces mounting criticism for handing out taxpayer cash to private firms during the pandemic.
The government has so far signed six Brexit contracts each worth £30m with KPMG, McKinsey, Bain, Deloitte, Accenture and PwC.
Ministers said the £180m sum was to “support the successful delivery of the UK’s economic and political independence, including relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.”
Commenting on the PAC report, Tamzen Isacsson, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, said: “Brexit has created an unprecedented workload for the UK government with the need to set up and plan new systems to cover border control, trade, agricultural policy and immigration as well as many other complex policy areas.
“The consultancy sector has supported the UK in these efforts, providing vital skills, extra capacity and insight and experience from all economic sectors as well as innovative ways of working.”
The select committee noted that it has raised concerns about Britain’s preparedness for Brexit in 12 separate reports since the 2016 referendum, “and yet, with a few weeks to go, border systems remain in development and plans for managing disruption or prioritisation of key goods are unclear”, it said.
“The government still only seems to be taking limited responsibility for that readiness”.
The cross-party group of MPs noted their “extreme concern about the risk of serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings” post-Brexit.
According to the government’s latest “reasonable worst-case planning assumptions”, between 40 and 70 per cent of lorries travelling between the EU and the UK may still not be ready for new border controls.
The PAC report warned that a failure to prepare UK borders for Brexit would have a “serious” impact on Britain’s food imports and exports.
“After 12 PAC reports full of warnings since the Brexit vote, the evidence suggests that come 1 January we face serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings that deliver a majority of our fresh food supplies,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier.
“The lack of definite next steps and inability to secure a deal adds to the challenge. A year after the oven ready deal, we have more of a cold turkey and businesses and consumers do not know what to be prepared for,” she said.
Get Brexit Done
The report also slammed the government’s various media blitzes telling businesses to prepare for Brexit, warning that their effect on companies’ readiness for the UK leaving the bloc remained “unclear”.
The government last year launched a £46m Get Ready for Brexit campaign, which it abandoned several months later after the EU granted an extension to trade deal negotiations.
In July, the Cabinet Office launched a separate Let’s Get Going media crusade with the aim of informing businesses and the public about what actions they need to take to be ready for the end of the transition period.
However, government survey data found that more than a third of SMEs still believe the transition period will be extended, while the Cabinet Office does not know whether the remaining 64 per cent have taken action to be ready.
The select committee urged ministers to “maximise all remaining opportunities for getting businesses and individuals to act in the time remaining to January 2021”.
“Pretending that things you don’t want to happen are not going to happen is not a recipe for government, it is a recipe for disaster,” said Hillier.
“We’re paying for that approach in the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and can only hope that we are not now facing another catastrophe, at the border in four weeks’ time.”
It comes as the UK remains locked in talks with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier as the two sides attempt to hash out a last-minute trade deal.
Time is running thin for a trade deal with the bloc, with the European Commission warning that any agreement will need a “significant” period to be ratified through parliament on both sides.
Barnier and UK envoy David Frost have so far not been able to reach agreements on the key stumbling blocks of fisheries, the so-called level playing field, and settling future disputes between Britain and the EU.
EU chief Ursula von Der Leyen last week said the bloc is now prepared for a no-deal Brexit.
“With very little time ahead of us, we will do all in our power to reach an agreement. We are ready to be creative”, she said.