Concerns surrounding the UK government’s search for a private consultancy firm to assist with the implementation of Brexit continued to grow last week, as the chairwoman of a spending watchdog warned taxpayers they are in danger of being short-changed by the process.
A new report from the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee into spending on consulting firms should give Westminster pause for thought, according to the committee’s chair. Speaking to the BBC, Meg Hillier stated that she was concerned the challenges of Brexit will place the short-staffed civil service under increasing strain, while warning Whitehall – the central hub of the national civil service – needed to be “really savvy about how they let and manage these contracts,” or risk being taken advantage of. “After all, Brexit is supposed to save us money,” she concluded.
While the head of the civil service, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, declared there was “no doubt at all” that the service was “well equipped to deliver all of this government's priorities – including the UK's exit from the EU,” the government has faced increasing criticism regarding the amount of public money being spent outsourcing policy implementation to the private sector.
Caution needed when hiring consultants
In the report published at the end of March, Hillier’s committee levelled claims that one firm in particular had already used the stretching of the civil service to their benefit, pre-referendum. UK-based PA Consulting Group were singled out by the paper, and were alleged to have repeatedly been “unclear… about the breakdown of its costs and profits,” while selling the UK Trade and Investment department “a service it is not clear it needed.”
While that particular contract was terminated in 2016, PA’s consultancy specialists are among four major companies bidding for a much sought-after £1.5 million contract, to assist with the implementation of Brexit. The successful party will reportedly work with government departments to knit together 729 different plans relating to customs and immigration procedures, since last summer’s (shock) referendum result signalled the UK’s intent to leave the EU. They will also be expected to provide advice relating to new challenges arising from Brexit, in areas such agriculture, automotive and financial services.
According to a recent study by Bain & Company, a ‘hard’ Brexit has the potential to wipe around 30%, or £3 billion, from the profit pool of UK-based companies across key sectors – with the grocery and automotive industries to face the hardest hit.
Along with PA, three constituent members of the ‘Big 4’ of the global accountancy and consultancy elite – EY, KPMG and PwC – are also in the running for the contract. Deloitte, the fourth, meanwhile ruled themselves out of bidding for any government contracts for six months after a controversial company memo claiming the UK had “no overall negotiation strategy for Brexit” was leaked. The memo sparked a fierce rebuttal from 10 Downing Street, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s office accusing the firm of “touting for business”, and while their withdrawal would seem to take responsibility, the recent claims surrounding PA will do little to ease concerns among the broader public around hiring further private-sector expertise.