Brexit staff redeployments revealed as ministers prepare to trigger Operation Yellowhammer

Written by Beckie Smith on 22 March 2019 in News
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Eight-hundred staff on the move, hundreds of millions in wage costs and holiday bans – how the civil service is preparing for Brexit day

Departments have begun to reveal the extent of staff redeployment across the civil service as Whitehall ups its preparation for a no-deal Brexit, with some workers barred from taking annual leave.

A CSW analysis of answers to parliamentary questions and policy documents reveals that one department is expecting to spend nearly £200m on extra staffing costs next year, while several are growing their Brexit units in preparation for a potential no-deal departure from the EU.

Ministers are expected to decide whether to activate emergency no-deal plans, known collectively as Operation Yellowhammer, in the coming days. Under terms agreed by EU leaders this week, the UK has until 12 April to set out its withdrawal plans or leave the EU without a deal. A longer extension of the UK's EU membership, lasting until 22 May, will only be granted if MPs approve the deal agreed by prime minister Theresa May and the EU last year. They have so far voted down it twice.


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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs expects to spend around £190m on additional staff it has hired on Brexit in 2019-20, according to David Rutley, a minister in the department. The estimate includes the costs of pay, pension and national insurance contributions and other overheads, he said.

As of 31 January, the Defra group – which includes the central department and its more than 30 agencies and public bodies – had recruited an extra 2,200 civil servants to work on its Brexit preparations, Rutley said. More than 80% of the department’s workload is affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Requests for leave denied

Meanwhile, others are bracing for a sudden increase in workload after the UK leaves the EU. Among them is the National Crime Agency, which told staff in January that they would not be allowed to book annual leave in April.

An agency spokesperson told CSW the ban, which applied to any leave that had not already been approved, was to mitigate the impact of a potential no-deal scenario, which would have “a significant effect on the work of the NCA”.

“It is extremely important the NCA has sufficient officers available to respond to whatever challenges that may arise and to ensure there is resilience to maintain operational business priorities,” they said. “In order to achieve this, some minimum staffing levels and leave restrictions were introduced at the beginning of this year, on a purely temporary basis.”

CSW understands the NCA is one of a number of departments restricting leave. Last month Valerie Vaz, shadow leader of the House of Commons, told MPs that some civil servants were having leave rescinded amid uncertainty over the withdrawal arrangements.

Asked about Vaz’s comments by CSW, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Annual leave is a matter for individual departments and no policy instruction has been given by the Cabinet Office."

Brexit buddy loans

Meanwhile, staff are being shuffled between departments to ensure those with the heaviest Brexit workloads have the capacity they need to prepare. By the end of this month, between 700 and 800 civil servants will have been seconded to other departments to aid the Brexit effort. Appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 28 February, civil service chief executive John Manzoni said around 300 people had moved already and up to 300 had been “matched” to other roles.

The Department for Education, one of the departments whose work is least affected by Brexit, had been the main “donor”, Manzoni said. The Ministry of Defence was providing staff to local resilience groups in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, while the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions had also offered up staff, he added.

By 22 February, DfE had loaned 70 civil servants to other departments to help with their Brexit preparations, according to education minister Anne Milton. “The civil service is focused on delivering the government’s most pressing priorities, so it is only sensible that we make use of the resources and expertise we have available to make sure the UK is prepared for all Brexit scenarios on exit day,” Milton said.

Milton was responding to a question about secondments from Labour MP Gareth Thomas – one of a number of parliamentarians putting written questions to departments in the absence of central reporting on internal or intra-departmental staff moves.

In another, international development minister Alan Burt revealed that as of 15 March, his department had deployed 74 of its staff on short-term loans related to Brexit. Just under a third – 23 – had been seconded to Defra since December. Sixteen had taken secondments at the Department for International Trade and seven each at the Foreign Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Burt said 15 had gone to the Border Supply Impact Group – a committee set up by the Brexit-focused Border Delivery Group of officials to pull together live operational information about the border.

Moves were decided after a “prioritisation exercise” to determine how many people the DfID could spare while delivering its essential business and the UK’s 0.7% aid commitment, he added.

Internal reshuffles

Ministers have also been answering questions about their internal staff shuffles to support departmental Brexit preparations. Europe minister Sir Alan Duncan said the Foreign Office had created 550 Brexit roles in the UK and overseas “to strengthen our diplomatic network in the UK and across Europe so that we are better able to represent and promote British interests and engage with our European partners in support of a successful EU exit”.

In MHCLG, which last year advertised for "resilience advisers" to deal with post-Brexit emergencies and help local areas mitigate disruption, 90 staff had been seconded to the department’s various Brexit teams as of last month. These teams had been “built up in a phased and gradual manner to reflect the increase in work associated with our exit from the EU”, totalling around 60 staff at the beginning of the year, according to Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, with a further 30 pulled from their day jobs more recently as preparations ramped up.

Since December, the Department of Health and Social Care has also added to its 70-strong central team of policy and project-delivery officials, who provide advice to minister on Brexit. As of 11 February, the team had grown to 95, with civil servants pulled in from other areas of the department.

By the end of January, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had seconded around 350 of its staff from their primary roles to support its Brexit work; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had moved more than 110 staff to Brexit work by mid-February.

Other staff within these departments were also working on Brexit preparations alongside their primary roles or being redeployed within individual directorates, ministers said. In DHSC, for example, communications, analytical and legal staff were providing advice on Brexit-related areas such as the supply of medicines, health minister Stephen Hammond said.

But not all departments have revealed how their deployment of staff has been affected by Brexit. In the Home Office, for example, immigration minister Caroline Nokes said it was “not possible” to answer a direct question about how many staff had been seconded to deal with no-deal preparations.

“This is because staff are generally engaged across a range of workstreams, which will include business as usual activity as well as Brexit preparations, across both deal and no deal scenarios,” she said.

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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