Organising government for Brexit – through a glass, darkly?

Written by Prof. Colin Talbot and Dr. Carole Talbot on 6 February 2018 in Opinion

Brexit is creating a mammoth task for government. The new Brexit|Org|Gov Project is attempting to understand and track what needs to be done across the public sector ahead of leaving the EU

Photo: PA

The Public Accounts Committee’s Exiting the European Union report, published today, raises grave concerns about Whitehall’s ability to implement the 300 plus workstreams it has identified and over 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation. MPs complain about poor planning, prioritisation, resourcing and confusing structures. And the committee says there is a clear lack of accountability and transparency about how the detailed implementation of Brexit is being centrally managed between DExEU, No. 10, the Cabinet Office and the HM Treasury.

The government refuses to let anyone – including the PAC – even see its list of 300-plus workstreams and what they cover (or how much they will cost).

Brexit|Org|Gov is a project, based at the University of Cambridge, to look at the impact and implications of Brexit for the organisation of government and public services in the UK.

We are building a database of these impacts and will report regularly on our findings on Civil Service World.

In our first report, we take a high-level look at the possible organizational impacts across UK government and public services – places where things could go seriously wrong if the problems identified by the PAC are not tackled.


The organisational impact of Brexit on UK government and public services could be huge. We estimate that already almost a quarter of a million public sector jobs could be impacted by Brexit. Some areas will see rapid growth in staffing, whilst others will be challenged by falling numbers of EU27 nationals coming to work for the UK’s public services – especially health, social care and education (schools and Universities).

A whole host of new organisations are being, or will have to be, created to cope with the changes triggered by Britain leaving the European Union. We have already had two new government departments created almost overnight, employing almost 4,000 civil servants. Many other new or enlarged bodies will have to be created to manage functions transferred from the EU to UK.

New systems will have to be created for a host of things, from registering EU27 nationals with a ‘right to remain’ in the UK through to managing the authorisation of medicines and medical devices currently done at EU level.

In many areas, information is hard to come by either because government hasn’t even thought about it yet or the organisations have been told not talk about the issues. Where we have estimated we’ve tried to be cautious.

Here’s a quick round up of just some of the issues in major areas. We will go into more detail in future reports.


Health and social care – now under the name of a single ministry (again) – is probably the biggest single area where Brexit could cause issues. Around 62,000 NHS staff in England, or 5.6% of the 1.2m, come from EU27 countries. Social Care is even more dependent on EU migrants with 95,000 workers – 7% – out of its 1.3m total.

Uncertainty over their future and, for some, a perceived hostile atmosphere may cause some EU27 nationals here to leave and fewer to come.

Current arrangements for mutual recognition of qualifications will cease with Brexit and either have to be re-established through new agreements or the UK will need to have new systems and capacity to assess potential professional migrants. And a new post-Brexit immigration policy is also needed, publication of which has just been put off until autumn 2018.


  • Schools

There are about 460,000 teachers in English primary and secondary schools. We have estimated (in the absence of hard data which DfE won’t release) that perhaps around 31,000 of these – or 7% - are EU nationals who trained abroad but came here to teach. Any significant drop in EU27 recruitment could exacerbate problems of recruitment and retention already starving some schools of teachers.

  • Universities and research

An estimated 31,000 academic staff in UK universities come from the EU or the European Economic Area – around 1 in 5. There are extensive reports that many are considering leaving the UK, and fewer academics are coming here as a result of Brexit. The impact of a significant drop in EU27 academics coming to the UK on teaching and research would be substantial.

The EU’s Horizon 2020 has allocated £2.1bn in grants to UK universities since it started in 2014 and probably contributed over 10% to universities’ research funding. Top universities received substantial amounts from H2020: Oxford €226m; Cambridge €220m; UCL €211m; Imperial €153m; Edinburgh €137m and Manchester €99m.


There have already been significant changes in government organization as a result of Brexit – the creation of DExEU and DIT being the most obvious. DExEU has a limited life-expectancy, which may be even shorter than most expect if there are political changes at the top of government. No. 10 has already pinched its permanent secretary and some of its most important work.

DIT on the other hand and its 3,200 civil service posts (not all of which have been filled) could have a big and long future ahead of it. With over 70 EU trade agreements to replicate it faces a huge task.

The Home office could see the biggest impact on civil service numbers – estimates are it needs up to 3,000 extra Border staff and 5,000 to cope with registering around three million EU27 nationals and the systems to do it, fast.

HMRC could see the need for many more staff and new systems to cope with checks on tariffs, origin, and compliance of goods crossing UK borders, and possibly new VAT rules. The NAO has estimated 4,000 extra staff.

Other areas of substantial change could include agricultural payments and fisheries policy (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), fisheries protection (Ministry of Defence), diplomatic services (Foreign Office), and many, many, changes in ‘quangoland’ as EU level regulatory functions devolve back to the UK.

British government will see changes not just to its size and structure, but probably to its style of governance, as Brexit happens. Watch this space.

If you have any information that you want to share please email It will be treated in confidence if necessary.

About the author

Prof. Colin Talbot and Dr. Carole Talbot are research associates at the University of Cambridge

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The contact details for the Civil Service World editorial team are available on our About Us page.

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