Department for Transport in ‘scramble’ to prepare for Brexit

Issues that could hobble the agency are coming from all angles as the deadline fast approaches.

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The National Audit Office (NAO) report on the Department For Transport’s (DfT) readiness for Britain leaving the European Union in March 2019 must be seen as cause for concern.

Dominating media attention in the days after the report was the assessment that in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, those driving vehicles into the European Union would need to apply for an International Driving Permit. Currently the Post Office issues 100,000 IDPs every year from 89 Post Office Branches. The Department estimates this could expand to 4,500 post offices issuing anything up to 7 million IDPs every year. The cost of the permit is currently £5.50, though the report does not specify what the future set fee will be. The NAO report commented there will be:

“A planned delivery deadline of December 2018, leaving just 7 months to issue the contract, develop the technical system and undertake user testing."

"The International Driving Permits (IDPs) project had not completed a business case or agreed detailed delivery plans."

Yet in the concerns listed in the 48 page report, issues affecting mass adoption of International Driving Permits might be seen as the tip of the iceberg.

For the IDPs solution to be viable, the department is racing to achieve full UK ratification of the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which would allow the use of the IDPs as the only necessary documentation for British drivers. Ratification is dependent on a trailer registration scheme, which requires a new IT infrastructure. According to the NAO: “The DVLA intends to use an external IT supplier to develop the new coding needed for the system but, while a preferred bidder had been selected, the contract had not yet been awarded. The prototype system, which initially the DVLA intended to have completed by April 2018, was unlikely to be ready for some months.”

Also requiring implementation is Project Brock, the interim solution to the Project Stack which deals with congestion on the M20 to Dover when ferry or rail is disrupted. NAO reported that ‘Highways England has reported that the project has very little room for delay in either the design or the construction phase, and that the work carries significant risk’, although ‘In July 2018, the Department reported to us that it was confident that the project would be delivered on time.’

As well as projects such as Project Brock, and pre-existing works including HS2, the Department of Transport is stretched by the sheer amount of legislation or ‘statutory instruments’ (SIs) that it needs to pass before 29 March 2019. There are still 127 SIs for the department to prepare, 63 of which are directly related to Brexit.

"Compared with the initial planning assumption, the timetable for laying all the SIs is now further compressed and adds further pressure to the already tight programme across government."

It has been calculated the DfT will need 52.5 extra staff to work from 2018-19 to cope with the wide array of Brexit-related concerns. As of June 2018, six of the vacancies had been filled. Another 10 full-time staff in the legal team was also required, of which two had been recruited.

The DfT has estimated that ‘the Department and its arms-length bodies have estimated that they will spend about £180m on projects for EU Exit by March 2022’. HM Treasury has awarded the Dft £75.8m, and the DfT has agreed that any expenditure above this amount ‘will need to be sourced from making efficiencies or changing its budgetary priorities’.

Co-ordination with the Department for Exiting the European Union has been difficult, as disparities between theirs and the DfT’s rating systems ‘potentially hinders the communication of clear messages to more senior levels’.

On top of all this, the DfTt has been instructed to prepare for multiple Brexit possibilities. Much of preparation is based on the UK following EU law until 2020, and still ‘has much to do’ on preparations for a contingency arrangement on the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO spoke of the DfT’s ongoing need to ‘scramble’ for Brexit preparedness, which was echoed in the report itself: “there is still no overall programme plan that consolidates modal plans and includes all key deliverables and milestones, thereby giving the Department a clear enough picture of the full implications should a number of tasks begin to slip.”

On more positive notes, the DfT considers the International Drivers Permit expansion as ‘deliverable’. The Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill has reached agreement between the Commons and the Lords, and now awaits Royal Assent.

Whatever the political position on leaving the European Union, it’s clear that the Department of Transport is taking on an incredible workload in an attempt to be ready for the day. Its cost estimates are not being matched by the Treasury, to the point they may be needing to cut staff as many more are to be hired. Project Brock and expansion of International Driving Permits are only surface concerns. March 2019 is fast approaching, with the conditions of Britain’s departure yet to be finalised by either side of the discussions.