Three key UK regulators are struggling to recruit and train enough staff to implement the government’s promise to deliver Brexit benefits, a report by the spending watchdog has found.
The National Audit Office found that the shortages had left the Competition and Markets Authority, the Health and Safety Executive and the Food Standards Agency facing significant challenges in standing up bespoke, post-Brexit regulatory regimes.
Lawyers, veterinarians and toxicologists were among the professions the three bodies were struggling to recruit as they tried to build capacity as a result of leaving the EU’s regulatory umbrella.
The NAO’s findings come as Boris Johnson’s government prepares to introduce to “Brexit freedoms bill” in the months ahead to capitalize on what ministers have promised would be the benefits of being outside the EU’s regulatory and legal framework.
At the CMA, which will manage the post-Brexit subsidy control regime, the vacancy rate for legal services roles was 25 per cent; at the HSE, which handles chemicals regulation, a quarter of all staff time in that division had been spent on training, the report said.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said Brexit had exerted a “major impact” on many UK regulators, including creating problems recruiting the right specialists. He urged the government to provide clarity on future regulatory regimes to avoid wasting time and money.
“It is essential that regulators and policymakers develop their future strategies as soon as possible to avoid wasting effort on short-term work and to ensure the decisions they make now meet their longer-term goals,” he said.
The problems facing the watchdogs have already led to the government holding off from introducing new regimes, including a two-year delay to implementing a UK equivalent to the EU’s Reach chemicals regulator.
Ministers have also delayed the introduction of full border checks on imports from the EU until at least the end of 2023 and the introduction of a new UK equivalent to the EU’s CE quality mark – the UKCA mark – until January 2023.
The FSA said it had been “challenging to recruit appropriately skilled toxicologists” and that it had been forced to increase training as a result, while more than doubling staff at its science, evidence and research division from 59 to 128 full-time equivalent posts.
The difficulties could also lead to delays in rolling out planned government deregulation, the report warned, noting that HSE estimated it would take “a further four years” to put enough staff in place to ensure it can deliver its post-Brexit regulatory functions. “There is a risk that capacity constraints could delay regulatory decisions,” the report added.
It also found there has been “limited progress” on regulatory co-operation with the EU following Brexit. A bilateral committee on regulatory co-operation set up as part of the EU-UK trade agreement has met just once – in October 2021 – and will only meet once a year in future
All the regulators told the NAO that the “loss of data- and information-sharing arrangements with EU counterparts” – for example the FSA losing access to the EU’s rapid alert system for food safety – had exerted a “negative impact” on their ability to assess risks or carry out their work.
Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee, said there was now “building tension between the high-minded talk of new Brexit freedoms, and what it means in practice for regulation”.
“Government must clearly light the way to prevent regulators fumbling around in the dark,” she said.
The government said in a statement: “We are seizing new opportunities to improve UK regulation for businesses and consumers.”