UK regulators are struggling to cope with the post-Brexit trading environment because of “poor preparation and planning”, a House of Commons committee investigation has found.
Almost two years after the UK quit the EU, there are still shortages of vets, toxicologists, lawyers and economists to deal with the UK’s new status as a “third country”, found the public accounts committee report, Regulating After EU Exit.
And it warned that a mooted 40% head count reduction across government, if implemented, would “make current regulatory models unsustainable” without changes to legislation.
“[The] government’s poor preparation and planning have combined with international political realities and the result is exposure of UK consumers and businesses to greater risks and costs,” said Dame Meg Hillier, the MP who chairs the committee.
The committee, which took detailed evidence from food, competition and chemicals agencies, found the regulators were making good strides towards working with international counterparts.
However, it also noted the effect on industry and consumers after the loss of access to EU data systems.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has lost full access to the EU’s rapid alert system on food and feed, which provides information on food safety alerts to member states, it noted.
The lack of membership of the EU’s chemicals regulatory regime, Reach (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals), will cost an estimated £800m to replicate in a UK-only regime.
“The regulators are taking action to mitigate these issues, but in some instances the alternatives are more time-consuming and are likely to increase costs over time,” the report warned.
The committee’s report found regulators were unable to recruit and retain enough staff skilled in the post-Brexit regime, with trade in farm produce particularly affected because of new veterinary certification needed on exports.
It also warned of dangers to the farming industry if cuts contained in last year’s spending review were enacted.
A reduction in the number of vets “would have a significant impact on the meat industry”, which cannot put products ranging from sausages to lamb cutlets on the market without veterinary signoff.
While efforts have been made in some sectors such as fishing to centralise the burden of red tape, the report found that, 21 months on, a shortage of vets was still affecting farm produce.
In autumn 2021 the FSA had to put temporary measures in place to ensure it was able to recruit enough qualified officials to deliver its expanded role, the report found.
It also noted that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) was “competing with the private sector to recruit and retain competition lawyers and economists while both the FSA and the Health and Safety Executive were “struggling to recruit experienced toxicologists in sufficient numbers”.
It added: “Regulators and policy departments should now identify the impact of potential cuts on regulatory risk and set out where significant changes in the regulatory model would be needed to mitigate them.”
Hillier called on the regulators to “work together on ways to address the loss of regulatory cooperation arrangements with the EU, and in six months we expect a progress report on how the arrangements set out in the trade and cooperation agreement are being taken forward”.
Development of long-term regulatory strategies post-Brexit “has been slow and the future direction remains unclear”, she said.
For example, the CMA’s subsidy advice unit, which will offer critical advice to companies working under the new trade deal, was not due to be operational before October 2022.
It will be two years before the HSE’s post-Brexit IT infrastructure and processes are completed and the FSA will not have full import checks on high-risk foods until the end of 2023.