Planning for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is being taken seriously across Wales and many public bodies have ramped up their efforts since the summer of 2018, but the picture varies across the country. That’s the conclusion of a report, published today, by the Auditor General for Wales. In it, he sets out some clear messages to all Welsh public bodies as they grapple with the major challenges and uncertainties of Brexit.
Today’s report makes it clear that uncertainty cannot be an excuse for inaction. While some public bodies have done a lot of preparation; others reported that continuing uncertainty meant they had made only limited preparations so far. The Auditor General is aware of unfounded concerns that he would criticise organisations for taking reasonable steps to mitigate Brexit-related risks. This is not the case. In January 2019, he issued a letter to the Chief Executives of all public bodies in Wales to set the record straight and to confirm that audit must not be viewed as a barrier to preparing for Brexit.
The Welsh Government is taking a lead role in identifying and managing national and strategic risks, working with colleagues in the UK Government and the other devolved administrations. Public bodies across Wales have identified areas of risk which include: ports; medical supply chains; food supply chains; workforce; financial risks; legislation; agricultural exports; economic impacts, and wider well-being. However, the extent to which public bodies have plans to mitigate the risks that they have identified varies significantly.
The report says that Brexit planning has spurred organisations to work across traditional boundaries, but that more should be done to take a ‘one public service’ approach to planning and preparations – this includes planning and managing risks together, sharing expertise and exchanging lessons learned.
Public bodies report a lack of capacity to manage Brexit, which is having a knock-on impact on other services. The Welsh Government has created 198 additional new staff roles on fixed-term contracts to work on Brexit. However, in many cases, rather than bring in new people, existing staff have been moved into Brexit roles and some of the new recruits will cover vacancies created by people moving to work on priority Brexit roles. Officials report that there are gaps in the delivery of non-Brexit related work.
The Auditor General also calls for more to be done to strengthen civic leadership through robust scrutiny and enhanced public engagement. So far, and with the exception of the Welsh Government itself, Brexit planning is being largely led by executive teams with limited independent, non-executive oversight and challenge.
Clear, measured and consistent public engagement is also needed to help avoid unnecessary panic and disruption. The Welsh Government’s online site Preparing Wales [opens in new window] provides a helpful starting place, but all public bodies now need to play their part in spreading those messages to the Welsh public. Public bodies across Wales have generally been waiting to engage with the public until they have greater certainty on the outcome of Brexit. But, with the UK’s exit date looming, it is vital that public bodies now increase their efforts.
There is still some considerable way to go to turn the planning into reality, to finalise plans, test arrangements and to make sure that they are resilient.
The Auditor General for Wales, Adrian Crompton said today:
“Brexit is an unprecedented peacetime challenge for everyone across the Welsh public services, and I’m very much aware that there’s no ‘off the shelf’ manual for handling this and that the Welsh Government has been clear that it won’t be possible to mitigate all of the impacts of a no-deal Brexit. That’s why I don’t expect every public body to have exhaustive plans for every implication, risk and opportunity. But with just weeks to go to a possible ‘no-deal’ Brexit, it’s clear that public bodies still have much to do to prepare themselves and the Welsh public. The key messages in my report should act as a spur to strengthen and accelerate planning across Wales.”
Notes to Editors:
- This report examines the arrangements that public bodies across Wales are putting in place to manage the implications, risks and opportunities of Brexit.
- It is the first in a series of commentary reports, by the Auditor General for Wales, on issues including Brexit.
- Many relevant policy areas are reserved to the UK Government, and the report only covers devolved bodies. It provides a high-level overview of how public bodies in Wales are managing the implications, risks and opportunities of Brexit. The report notes that the Welsh Government says that it has found it difficult, at times, to get complete or timely information from some UK Government departments. We were told that those working relationships have improved over recent months.
- In November 2018, the Auditor General invited the Chief Executives of every devolved public body in Wales to share evidence of their preparations for Brexit; all have replied, and most have also completed a self-assessment.
- At the time of this report’s publication, there is still a significant chance of a no-deal Brexit.
- The Auditor General for Wales has no view on the political discussions or policy decisions about the form that Brexit should take.
- The Auditor General is the independent statutory external auditor of the devolved Welsh public sector. He is responsible for the annual audit of the majority of the public money spent in Wales, including the £15 billion of funds that are voted on annually by the National Assembly. Elements of this funding are passed by the Welsh Government to the NHS in Wales (over £7 billion) and to local government (over £4 billion).
- The audit independence of the Auditor General is of paramount importance. He is appointed by the Queen, and his audit work is not subject to direction or control by the National Assembly or government.
- The Wales Audit Office (WAO) is a corporate body consisting of a nine-member statutory Board which employs staff and provides other resources to the Auditor General, who is also the Board’s Chief Executive and Accounting Officer. The Board monitors and advises the Auditor General, regarding the exercise of his functions.