Years of 'furious paddling' ahead after Brexit, ex-DExEU perm sec warns
'Brexit will be the dominant driver of the underlying business of this government,' Rycroft predicts
Photo: Baldo Sciacca for CSW
Work to deliver Brexit will be far from over on 31 January, and the more civil servants than ever will be needed to keep up with the scale of the task, the former permanent secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union has said.
Philip Rycroft, who was DExEU head from September 2017 to March 2019, has said he expects the number of civil servants working on Brexit – which now stands at around 25,000 – to keep climbing even after the UK leaves the EU.
Writing for the Guardian, Rycroft said it would be a mistake to think work to deliver Brexit will be finished once the UK leaves the EU on 31 January.
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“It’s true that Brexit may not dominate the headlines in quite the way it has done over the last few years. But even if the surface remains calm, beneath it there will be a whole lot of furious paddling,” the ex-perm sec wrote.
“For Brexit will be the dominant driver of the underlying business of this government. Its handling of Brexit is more likely than anything else to define its legacy. A change as profound as our exit from the EU, for good or ill, entails huge and lasting consequences for this country; we are really only now, finally, at the starting gate for sorting out what that will mean.”
Still to be completed is a deal with EU leaders defining the UK’s relationship with the bloc after Brexit – “the biggest negotiation ever undertaken by the UK”, Rycroft said. Every trade agreement it reaches with other non-EU countries will each be “a complex deal in its own right”, he said.
“And the interaction between any one of these and the EU negotiations will take forensic coordination, as well as hard political choices,” he added.
Changes to regulatory regimes, which will see UK bodies take on oversight of regulations previously led by EU counterparts, and a more competitive trade landscape for UK businesses, will also be among the challenges the civil service must address, Rycroft said.
“All this will require more civil servants – one of the unintended consequences of Brexit,” he said, but added that officials “will certainly be up for the challenge”.
Work to recruit officials to key Brexit roles is continuing, with HM Revenue and Customs this week offering £140,000 for a director general to take up responsibility for “delivering the next stages of EU exit” for the tax agency.
DExEU’s closure at the end of this month could provide an opportunity to support delivery across government, Rycroft said.
“Handled well, this will release the brilliant capability built up in DExEU to support Brexit-related work across government.
“But it will be critically important to retain a sufficient cadre of DExEU officials who have deep knowledge of the EU machine and Brexit and all it entails at the centre of government to help coordinate what will be an immensely complicated negotiation with the EU.”
His comments come amid warnings that high turnover of civil servants is posing a risk to the delivery of government projects and policies including the UK’s exit from the EU.
A report from the Institute for Government this week found 40% of DExEU staff left the department in a year.
Rycroft also dismissed claims that civil servants had dragged their feet on delivering Brexit as “nonsense”.
“I know from my own experience in DExEU of the huge commitment made by thousands of civil servants across government to drive forward the mammoth task of getting us ready for Brexit,” he said.
“The jamming of the process through political paralysis was just as frustrating for civil servants as it was for the rest of the country.”
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