The Committee for Exiting the European Union heard from Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General, National Audit Office about Brexit preparedness and coordination across Whitehall. Sir Amyas talked about ‘points of failure’ and I asked him where these pressure points will be.
Stephen Kinnock: Good morning, Sir Amyas. The Chair has already mentioned your comment back in July about the potential for the Government falling apart like a “chocolate orange”. In the event of no deal, how high would you estimate the risk of that chocolate-orange scenario in reality?
Sir Amyas Morse: I do not think it would because, since then, a number of cross-working entities have come into existence in government, most notably the Border Planning Group. That group has been quite effective in pulling together a consideration of border issues and in reflecting realistic assessments of risk into central Government, up into the top levels of government. There is a more unified view, which is being reflected in the ministerial committee. There is a more unified view. There is so much concentrated risk. If you think about it, if you pardon me saying, you would not start from here. A lot of things are going forward with very short timescales and, generally speaking, the civil service is putting a terrific effort behind this, but because of the large number of unresolved risks that will be there in March, some are bound to come to reality. Rather than saying it will fall apart like a chocolate orange, what will happen is there will be points of failure.
Stephen Kinnock: Are you in a position to say where the most likely points of failure will be, in all probability? Where do you see the major pressure points?
Sir Amyas Morse: Can I answer it like this? Rather than predicting failure, I would say there are points of crucial interdependency. There are a lot of systems that are dependent on the CDS system working. When you analyse it, you realise there are points of complex interdependency where, if one thing does not work, is not ready on time or is not working properly, it has an effect across the system on quite a number of other activities in other Departments. That is one thing to say. It is inevitable that the areas that will be under most stress will be at the border. I am not going to pick the losers any further than that, but I would say the challenges will lie at the border.
Stephen Kinnock: If we take an example such as agricultural products such as meat, currently that flows around the European Union with no checks whatsoever, but meat coming in from outside the European Union is checked. Approximately 20% to 30% is stopped at the border and checked by vets and other regulatory bodies. If that scenario is what we are looking at on 30 March, are you confident that the meat industry, to take it as an example, and the public administration that underpins it would be able to cope with the new checking procedure?
Sir Amyas Morse: What I can say is this. The Department has thought about this and, as far as possible, is taking action, but it is not necessarily suggesting that all those actions will be completely effective. For example, they are checking what capacity there is in the market for veterinary services for people to be available to do more certification. They are exploring areas where they could use people who are not fully qualified vets to do parts off this work. What they are doing as mitigation is all sensible, but it does not follow that there are no circumstances in which all those sensible actions may not fully mitigate the risk.