Three major UK safety and competition regulators are struggling to adapt to expanded roles after Brexit, leaving businesses and consumers facing increased safety risks and higher costs, an influential group of MPs has warned.
Recruitment difficulties, a shortage of expertise and exclusion from valuable EU information-sharing networks had all contributed to the challenge, according to a report published on Wednesday by the House of Commons public accounts committee.
The Competition and Markets Authority, the Food Standards Agency and the Health and Safety Executive also warned that looming civil service budget cuts, if enacted, would impede their ability to adapt to a post-Brexit regulatory environment that has yet to be defined.
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said 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”.
The report found agencies grappling with shortages of vets and toxicologists needed to monitor food safety, and difficulties recruiting lawyers and economists for the UK’s new post-Brexit subsidy control unit at the CMA.
The FSA admitted the staffing of abattoirs — where vets are required to sign off meat as safe — had become “hand to mouth” in the autumn last year. At that time, only 210 vets were available, compared with a typical need of 260.
The FSA also warned that being excluded from EU early warning safety networks had made surveillance of disease threats far more time- consuming, with “65 per cent more staff resource” required to deliver the same international information exchange on food safety as before Brexit.
FSA chief executive Emily Miles told the committee she was “less optimistic” about information exchange improving after the body was asked to leave the Heads of Food Safety Agencies this year, an informal EU networking forum for food safety heads.
The British Veterinary Association said it was “pleased” the PAC had highlighted labour shortages and urged the government to take steps to resolve them, “including paving the way for more EU vets to register to work in the UK”.
The agency heads told the committee they were trying to boost recruitment and training, reducing English language requirements for vets, and obtaining “salary flexibility” from the Treasury for lawyers and economists to join the CMA.
Efforts by the HSE to create a UK version of the EU’s chemical controls system, Reach, had required staff at the agency’s Chemicals Regulation Division to spend a quarter of their time in training, the report said.
The agencies also warned that if the government proceeded with plans to cut up to 91,000 civil servants in the coming years, their ability to meet the post-Brexit demands being placed on them could be seriously affected.
The British Chambers of Commerce, a business association, echoed the report’s warning that the government’s proposals to review or revoke all EU-derived legislation risked putting a “disproportionate” cost burden on small companies.
“This report spells out the scale of the challenge government must meet to get the UK’s regulatory capacity up to full speed in the post-Brexit environment,” said BCC head of trade policy William Bain.
The government said it was committed to taking full advantage of the benefits of Brexit, “which is why we are pushing ahead with our Retained EU Law Bill, which will end the special legal status of all retained EU law by 2023.”
A spokesperson said: “This will allow us to ensure our regulations best fit the needs of the country, removing needless bureaucracy to stimulate economic growth.”