Taxpayers have stumped up a bill for more than £4bn to pay for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the Whitehall spending watchdog has claimed.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said that between the EU referendum in June 2016 and March 31 this year, government departments will have spent at least £4.4 billion, while £6.3 billion was allocated by the Treasury for Brexit preparations.
They included planning for both “deal” and “no deal” scenarios, with £2 billion specifically earmarked for “no deal” preparations in 2019-20 – although this was scaled back after the prospects of “no deal” receded.
Of the money spent, £1.9 billion went on staffing costs, £1.5 billion on building new systems and infrastructure, and £288 million on bringing in expertise and external advice.
Naomi Smith, from the anti-Brexit campaign group Best For Britain, slammed the costs and said they are set to soar ahead of June with the government refusing to budge on negotiations.
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She added: “An awful lot of money has been spent by government departments on the process of leaving the EU.
“We’ve spent billions on this when to be frank there are other priorities we should be focusing on. With coronavirus looking like it will wreak havoc for months to come, let’s support our NHS at this critical time instead.”
At the peak of activity, in October 2019, there were 22,000 staff working on Brexit preparations, including 1,500 who had been moved within government to prepare for a possible “no deal” exit.
Overall, the NAO said the figures represented a “minimum estimated level of spend” due to “limitations” in the data provided by departments.
The head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, said: “In preparing for EU exit, government departments planned for multiple potential outcomes, with shifting timetables and uncertainty.
“Producing this report has highlighted limitations in how government monitored spending on EU exit specifically, and cross-government programmes more generally.”
The chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, said: “The public has been kept in the dark as to what the government has been doing.
“Data is limited and the Treasury seem unconcerned by the lack of transparency.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said that the public “have a right to know where it is all going”
He said: “In the face of major floods and the coronavirus threat, we have to ask if the government knows its own spending priorities.
“Thanks to the prime minister’s self-imposed and self-defeating deadline we are facing a crisis crunch, with serious challenges in multiple directions. Our country deserves better leadership than this.
“Not only must a no-deal Brexit be taken off the table, but ministers in charge of Brexit preparations must come clean on what they have been doing with billions of pounds of public money.”