Alarm over Northern Ireland Office's 'low' spending on Brexit
£1.7m outlay surprisingly small, says economist
Whitehall departments have shelled out £97m on consultants to help them prepare for Brexit, but the Northern Ireland Office spent just £1.7m of that total, despite the border's central place in the debate.
The figures were revealed by UK spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO).
Leading economist Dr Esmond Birnie, of Ulster University, said he was surprised the NIO spend was so low.
"It's below Northern Ireland's proportion of the UK's GDP and below its proportion of the UK population," Mr Birnie said. "Given the land border, the complexity of the trade issues with the Republic of Ireland and the scale of the north-south relationships that need to be managed as part of Brexit, it's surprising the spend is so small."
Dr Birnie said the low level of spending could be mitigated by other spending by Stormont departments, or by spending incurred by other Whitehall departments with a role in Northern Ireland. "But it's not self-evident that there is a lot of overlap there," he said.
Dr Birnie added that the general public view was that spending on consultants was a waste of money, "but it is done because the Civil Service does not always have the capacity to deal with very complex issues in a very short timeframe."
About 25% of the UK consultancy work provided project and programme management support, and another 33% related to no-deal preparations, the NAO said.
The NAO also said government departments were failing to meet transparency standards, including publishing details of contracts awarded within 90 calendar days.
Labour MP Meg Hillier, Westminster's Public Accounts Committee chairwoman, said it was "not good enough" that the Cabinet Office, responsible for improving government efficiency, appeared to have lost track of 50% of the £97m spend.
She said: "The lack of transparency around Brexit preparations that my committee has become all too familiar with applies to the use of these consultants."
Last night the NIO offered no details about its spending on Brexit consultancy.
It said: "As with a number of departments, the NIO and the Northern Ireland Civil Service benefited from consultancy support across a range of EU exit-related preparedness projects.
"This support assisted in the development of robust contingency plans in the event of a no-deal exit and was procured through existing Cabinet Office frameworks."