Opinion: time to end the Brexit uncertainty for EU national civil servants

Written by Sue Ferns on 23 January 2018 in Opinion

The lack of clarity on the future working rights for civil servants from EU countries will not be resolved by good intentions, says Prospect’s Sue Ferns. Action is needed now

Photo: PA

As the New Year began, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood sought to reassure civil servants who are non-UK EEA citizens about their job security.

This was a welcome intervention following up a statement of intent issued by the government chief people officer Rupert McNeil. But 18 months on from the EU referendum these good intentions are too little, too late.


For months Prospect has been seeking clarification from ministers about the impact of Civil Service Nationality Rules under which the rights of EEA nationals to work as civil servants appear to be conditional on to freedom of movement.

All we can be certain of is that Brexit will bring changes to freedom of movement as it currently exists. This uncertainty is damaging and demoralising and it requires urgent political resolution.

Cabinet Office ministers pre-reshuffle failed to provide reassurance, stating only that the position of EU national civil servants is linked to the wider position on citizen’s rights. This is unsatisfactory both because the wider position is still up for grabs and because the requirements on civil servants’ nationality are more testing – as set out in the charmingly named Aliens Employment Act of 1955.

We had hoped that with the publication of the joint report on 8 December, government would have seriously addressed these concerns. The stated policy intention is that post-Brexit the civil service nationality rules should continue to enable EU citizens to be employed in the civil service.

But what does this mean in practice? Will the government changes the national rules to ensure that this policy intention is delivered for everyone concerned? Will it guarantee that no civil servants will be dismissed or removed from their role because of their nationality or status in the UK?

Apparently not.

In response to a question from Tom Brake MP about the possible changes required to effect the policy intention, the then Cabinet Office minister Caroline Nokes acknowledged that the civil service nationality rules are distinct from rules governing immigration status but declined to specify what the government is doing about this.

But it gets worse. Further parliamentary questions from Tom Brake revealed that the government does not know how many non-UK EU nationals are employed by each government department, either as civil servants or contractors. Neither has it made any assessment of the civil service functions that have the highest reliance on non-UK EU nationals.

It’s not much of a stretch to equate doesn’t know with doesn’t care.

So, not only is the government failing in its duty to individual citizens who have conscientiously contributed to the public services that benefit us all, it has not properly assessed the risks to its own future capacity and capability.

This is shamefully poor practice in any circumstances. Viewed against the huge demands posed by Brexit, it is arguably negligent. Our information, based on survey evidence of Prospect members is that up to 15% of the civil service workforce could be affected.

The new Cabinet Office ministerial team must urgently provide some answers – not only is this the right thing to do, it’s in their self-interest to ensure that government really can continue to function effectively.

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Sue Ferns
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Sue Ferns is deputy general secretary of the trade union Prospect

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