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Brexit uncertainty cannot be an excuse for inaction in public sector says Wales Audit Office

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Tuesday, Feb 19th, 2019.

Planning for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is being taken seriously across Wales but the picture varies across the country the Auditor General for Wales has said.

In a report published today the Wales Audit Office (WAO) sets out some clear messages to all Welsh public bodies as they grapple with the major challenges and uncertainties of Brexit.

The report makes it clear that “uncertainty cannot be an excuse for inaction” and while some public bodies have done a lot of preparation; others report that continuing uncertainty meant they had made only limited preparations so far.

Local councils have been using a guide that the Welsh Local Government Association commissioned Grant Thornton to produce.

Based on their self-assessments, “only a minority of councils had clear plans to deal with the risks they have identified. Some bodies were delaying work until there is greater certainty.” The WAO says.

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 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 has called 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.

The watchdog also says that “clear, measured and consistent” public engagement is also needed to help avoid unnecessary panic and disruption.

The Welsh Government’s online site Preparing Wales provides a helpful starting place, “but all public bodies now need to play their part in spreading those messages to the Welsh public. The WAO says.

The report says “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.” It goes on to say.

Auditor General for Wales, Adrian Crompton has said he will not criticise reasonable ‘no-deal’ Brexit expenditure as wasteful: “It appears there are some concerns that I would give Welsh public bodies a hard time for spending money and time planning for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.”

“There is a view that, because the outcome is unclear, and some spending may turn out not to have been required if the ‘no-deal’ scenario does not materialise, I will criticise that as waste.

At the end of January 2019, I wrote to all Chief Executives of public bodies, to say clearly that I will not criticise anybody for taking reasonable steps to prepare for and mitigate Brexit related risks.”

Mr Crompton added:

“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.”

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