As Sir Tim Barrow delivers the Article 50 letter and kicks off the process of exiting the European Union, 100 Prospect union reps are meeting in London today to discuss health and safety.
What’s the connection? Well, a key group of those 100 delegates – our civil service reps – will be talking about stress, workloads and how Brexit will put even more pressure on professionals, managers and specialists in government.
May announces Article 50 trigger as IfG warns there will be "little time for anything else"
National Audit Office sounds alarm over civil service workload
Civil service numbers are at their lowest level since comparable data began – and currently below the 1939 levels. Staff numbers have fallen by 26% since 2006.
Extra cuts are planned, with departments being asked to cull a further 6% from their budgets by 2020.
Stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions are rising in parts of the civil service, and the situation could get even worse.
The civil service people survey carried out last year found that 42% of staff did not have a manageable workload and 33% were struggling to achieve a reasonable work-life balance.
Most worrying for the government was that almost a quarter of staff indicated that they wanted to leave their jobs – either immediately or in the next year.
Almost three quarters of staff believe that they could be paid more elsewhere doing similar jobs.
A recent report from the National Audit Office said 40% of civil servants are now aged 50 or over. Departments were concerned that this was a particular issue with specialists, many of whom may retire in the next five to ten years.
As Article 50 is triggered, civil servants will be central to the UK’s negotiations and preparations for Brexit – and for the execution and implementation of the outcome of those negotiations.
With many of our members already facing increasing workloads, we fear that fewer staff and less money could hamper UK efforts.
This is not just about headline decisions over access to the single market, but a host of detailed policy areas like environmental regulation and nature protections.
The government is heading into the two-year exit period after Article 50 is triggered without giving civil servants the tools they need to handle the negotiations.
The UK could lose out because of a lack of resources and expertise in Whitehall.
Prospect Brexit survey
We carried out a Brexit survey of our members earlier this year. It showed clear dissatisfaction among civil servants about how the government is preparing for life outside the EU. More than half (55%) said the Brexit decision had impacted negatively on their organisation.
Only 22% said the government had the skills necessary to handle Article 50.
Indeed, John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, told a Prospect seminar last year: “When I look across from outside, I say we’re doing 30% too much to do it all well… Along comes Brexit – 90% of your business has just changed… How do we absorb that?
“The fact is we need to go back, we need to re-plan, we need to be realistic, we can’t do it all – it won’t all happen within the existing envelope.”
The Institute for Government has also warned that: “The government is trying to do too much as it prepares for Brexit … the civil service continues to function despite fewer staff and less money.
“But as it prepares for the massive challenge of Brexit, the workforce is the smallest it’s been in 70 years … Government is still nowhere near to reducing its workload by 30%, as the chief executive of the civil service advised.”
Running down the civil service and putting officials under more stress is no way to deal with Brexit.
The government is at risk of entering the negotiations with one hand tied behind its back if it does not ensure the civil service has the skills and resources to do the job.