Parliament’s Whitehall watchdog has accused the government of putting its head in the sand over no-deal Brexit as it becomes increasingly clear ministers have failed to prepare in time.
The cross-party Public Accounts Committee warned in a new report that the government was still “taking limited responsibility” for Brexit readiness despite there being just four weeks left until Britain leaves the single market.
In a grim report published on Wednesday the MPs warned that they were “extremely concerned about the risk of serious disruption and delay” because of government inaction at ports like Dover.
The MPs noted that it was the twelfth time they had warned the government about the issue since the Brexit vote, but that it was still “not doing enough to ensure businesses and citizens will be ready for the end of the transition period”.
Brexit preparations have involved more than 22,000 civil servants at their peak and have cost at least £4.4 billion, the spending watchdog said – and yet there are still “critical gaps in the civil service’s approach to planning, particularly for unexpected events or undesired outcome”.
This costly approach is compounded by the fact that the Treasury “still does not have a good grip on how much taxpayers’ money is being spent on cross-government priorities”, with excess spending on consultants and little investment in the civil service itself.
“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 Meg Hillier, the MP who chairs the committee.
“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 4 weeks’ time.
“But after 12 PAC reports full of warnings since the Brexit vote, the evidence suggests that come January 1st we face serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings that deliver a majority of our fresh food supplies.
“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.”
Trade talks with the EU to sign a deal have now continued in December, but there is little sign of a deal on the horizon.
Trade experts however warn that the hard nature of the Brexit chosen by Boris Johnson makes disruption inevitable, even if an agreement is forthcoming.
A UK Government Spokesperson said: “We are making significant preparations to prepare for the guaranteed changes at the end of the transition period including investing £705 million in jobs, technology and infrastructure at the border and providing £84 million in grants to boost the customs intermediaries sector. This is alongside implementing border controls in stages so traders have more time to prepare”
“With less than one month to go, it’s vital that businesses and citizens make their final preparations too. That’s why we’re intensifying our engagement with businesses through the Brexit Business Taskforce and running a major public information campaign so they know exactly what they need to do to get ready.”