Food could be delayed at the border and animal export stopped as Defra is at high risk of not being ready for a no deal Brexit, the National Audit Office has concluded. What's more, the department does not understand the risk.

In its report published today (September 12, 2018), the NAO has assessed how Defra is implementing its overall EU Exit portfolio. It has assessed in detail four of Defra’s work streams covering environmental regulations for chemicals, the import and exports of animals and animal products and control of English fishing waters.

The NAO report states that Defra is facing an 'enormous challenge' in the planned exit from EU. "It is now not able to deliver everything it originally intended for a ‘no-deal’ exit, though Defra told us it still aims to have sufficient arrangements in place if needed," it reads.

The risk of Defra not delivering everything it had originally intended for a no deal scenario is high and, until recently, not well understood by the department.

In the work streams the NAO examined, it found that Defra would not be ready for the export of animals and animal produces. The report says:

For the UK to continue exporting, it must comply with international health requirements and all exports must be accompanied by an export health certificate.

Defra needs to negotiate with 154 countries to introduce 1,400 different UK versions of current EU export health certificates.

Defra is focusing on reaching agreement with 15 of these countries which it estimates account for 90% of total exports, but will not reach the other 139 by March 2019.

It has accepted the risk that UK firms exporting to countries where agreements are not reached may not be able to do so for a period after EU Exit.

Export health certificates will also be required for the first time for exports to the EU if there is no deal which will result in a significant increase in certificates needing to be processed by vets.

Without enough vets, consignments of food could be delayed at the border or prevented from leaving the UK.

Defra intended to start engaging with the veterinary industry in April 2018, but has not been permitted to do so and now plans to launch an emergency recruitment campaign in October to at least meet minimum levels of vets required.

It plans to meet any remaining gaps through the use of non-veterinarians to check records and processes that do not require veterinary judgement.

Exports of animals and animal products from the UK are valued at £7.6 billion.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: "The scale and complexity of what needs to be done to leave the EU is a significant challenge and Defra is impacted more than most. It has achieved a great deal, but gaps remain and with six months to go it won’t deliver all it originally intended in the event of no deal, and when gaps exist, it needs to focus on alternatives and mitigations.

“Like other departments, it now must ensure its voice is heard by the centre of government to provide an accurate picture of what is possible if a negotiated settlement is not reached, and even if it is.”

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts said: “By its own admission, Defra’s planning was initially too optimistic, and as a result it has missed a large chunk of milestones.

“We are rapidly running out of time for Defra and other departments to finish planning and deliver completely new services and functions, and a huge volume of legislation.

“The government needs to be honest with the public about its progress in delivering key elements of Brexit and must be upfront about what won’t be ready in time.”

The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government.