An influential group of lawmakers has warned that three of the UK’s top security and competition officials are struggling to adapt to expanded roles after Brexit, leaving businesses and consumers facing greater security risks and higher costs.
Recruitment difficulties, skill shortages, and exclusion from valuable EU networks for information exchange have contributed to this challenge, according to a report Published Wednesday by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
The Competition and Markets Authority, the Food Standards Agency and the Executive Director of Health and Safety have also warned that looming cuts to the civil service budget, if adopted, would hamper their ability to adapt to the as-yet-determined post-Brexit regulatory framework.
PAC Chair Ms Meg Heller said: “The government’s poor preparation and planning have combined with international political realities and the result is exposing UK consumers and businesses to greater risks and costs.”
The report found agencies grappling with a shortage of veterinarians and toxicologists needed to monitor food safety and difficulties in recruiting lawyers and economists for the new post-Brexit Support Monitoring Unit at the CMA.
The Free Syrian Army admitted that workers in slaughterhouses – where veterinarians are required to declare meat safe – became “oralists” in the fall of last year. At the time, only 210 vets were available, compared to the typical requirement of 260.
The FSA also warned that exclusion from the EU’s early warning safety nets made monitoring disease threats too time consuming, with “65% more human resources” needed to provide the same international exchange of food safety information as it was before Brexit.
Emily Miles, chief executive of the FSA, told the committee she was “less optimistic” about improving information sharing after the agency was asked to leave the heads of food safety agencies this year.
The British Veterinary Association said it was “happy” that the PAC had highlighted the labor shortage and urged the government to take steps to address it “including paving the way for more EU vets to register to work in the UK”.
Agency chiefs told the committee they are looking to increase hiring and training, reduce English language requirements for veterinarians, and gain “salary flexibility” from the Treasury for lawyers and economists to join the CMA.
The report said HSE efforts to create a British version of the EU’s chemical control system, REACH, required staff in the agency’s Chemical Regulatory Division to devote a quarter of their time to training.
The agencies have also warned that if the government goes ahead with plans to lay off up to 91,000 government employees over the next few years, their ability to meet post-Brexit demands could be seriously compromised.
The British Chambers of Commerce, a business association, echoed the report’s warning that government proposals to review or repeal all EU-derived legislation could impose a “disproportionate” cost burden on small businesses.
“This report illustrates the scale of the challenge facing the government in bringing the UK’s regulatory capacity to full capacity in the post-Brexit environment,” said William Payne, BCC’s head of trade policy.
The government said it was committed to reaping the full benefits of Brexit, “which is why we are pursuing the retained EU bill, which would end the special legal status of all EU laws retained by 2023”.
“This will allow us to ensure that our regulations are best suited to the country’s needs, and remove unnecessary bureaucracy to stimulate economic growth,” a spokesperson said.
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