The British government has spent at least 4.4 billion pounds ($5.6 billion) of taxpayers’ money on preparations to leave the European Union, the public spending watchdog said on Friday, in the first detailed estimate of the cost of Brexit.
The National Audit Office, or NAO, said in a report that most of the money was spent on staff costs, building new infrastructure and paying for external advice.
Although some ministries had to supplement their spending from existing budgets, the government overall only spent about 70 percent of the 6.3 billion pounds allocated to cover the cost of preparations, the report said.
In an indication of the upheaval that Brexit caused within government, the report said no fewer than 22,000 government officials were working on Brexit at the peak when Britain was on the verge of leaving the EU without a divorce deal last October.
“This report provides, for the first time, a clear picture of how much government has spent and what that money has been spent on,” said NAO head Gareth Davies.
Britain left the EU at the end of January, its biggest geopolitical upheaval in decades. Officials had to increase training for customs officials, hire more staff to negotiate trade deals and improve infrastructure around ports.
More than half of the money was spent by three departments: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office, along with HM Revenue and Customs.
The NAO said its estimate only focused on the cost of government preparations and excluded future costs such as the divorce bill of 39 billion pounds agreed with the EU.
It also said the report does not come to a value-for-money conclusion, while there were limitations in the information provided by departments and the estimate is only the minimum level of spending by the government.
Overall, 1.9 billion pounds was spent on paying government employees, 1.5 billion went on new infrastructure and 288 million pounds was spent on external advice.
First budget after divorce
The UK is also preparing for its first budget since leaving the EU, as finance minister Rishi Sunak will deliver his first budget next Wednesday, after taking over the role last month following the resignation of Sajid Javid.
In the annual statement on tax, public spending and economic forecasts, Sunak is expected to announce extra cash for the National Health Service and other public services to help them cope with the impact of a novel coronavirus outbreak.
It will also be the first budget since October 2018. British MPs will vote on whether to accept the budget proposal and, as the Conservatives have a majority of 80, it’s almost guaranteed to pass.
First elected to Parliament in 2015, Sunak previously served as chief secretary to the Treasury, the second in command to the finance minister, overseeing public spending.
Jonathan Powell in London and agencies contributed to this story.