15 December 2016

Why the Civil Service is desperate to know what Brexit means

By Joseph Owen & Robyn Munro

With only a few months to go until Theresa May triggers Article 50, the civil service urgently needs to be told how to prepare for both the negotiations process and life outside the EU.

Yesterday, David Davis MP repeated his desire for talks to complete within the two year period and result in a “smooth and orderly” Brexit. But there is work to do if he wants to deliver on these promises and avoid a “cliff-edge”.

Progress has been made. The new Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) is up and running, with currently over 300 staff driving cross-Whitehall boards and working groups.

It is acting as a beefed up co-ordination unit, extracting information from departmental teams to provide Theresa May with options that will inform the UK’s negotiating position.

With DExEU in a co-ordinating role, Whitehall departments are providing the analysis, expertise and horsepower behind much of the Brexit work. But their contributions are hindered by the opacity of the process they are feeding in to.

There is uncertainty in some departments about what is required from them before Article 50 is triggered. They receive specific, short-term requests for information from DExEU, but they don’t know what’s coming next or what the priorities are for March.

The problem is the Government doesn’t have a clear plan for how negotiations will be managed.

The EU already has the structures and processes in place for managing and supporting negotiations. There are different models and mechanisms for how the UK might run the talks, but all would require preparatory work to ensure they begin talks on the front foot.

There must be greater focus on preparing for day one outside of the EU. Departments are not working consistently across the board to ensure the UK has the policies and implementation plans in place to avoid a “cliff edge” at the point of exit.

Many changes will take years not months, and any decisions on negotiating positions must be made fully cognisant of the time and money required to put them to practice.

Of course, there is sensitivity around sharing the Government’s negotiating objectives, but departments are critical to the success of Brexit and need more information. This includes the parameters and timelines to which they are working, the way they will be involved in negotiations and the planning they are required to do to ensure the UK is ready upon exit.

Without this information departments are unable to effectively plan and prioritise, essential in the context of cuts and existing commitments that departments are working in.

The civil service is now 20 per cent smaller than it was in 2010, and some departments have up to 35 per cent less staff than they did at the start of the coalition government.

Our report argues that, for many of the most affected departments – such as Defra and the Home Office – Brexit work is layered on top of severe budget cuts and significant spending reductions that need to be delivered over the next parliament.

Departments have to choose between meeting pre-existing commitments or the demands of Brexit.

If the Government does not clearly set out its priorities, there is a risk that the Civil Service will not be prepared for either.

Joseph Owen & Robyn Munro are researchers at the Institute for Government and authors of its new report: "Whitehall’s preparation for the UK’s exit from the EU"