Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has developed plans to move 2,000 civil servants between government departments as departments prepare for a potential no-deal Brexit at the end of October.
According to reports in The Sun, the cabinet subcommittee on EU exit operations, known as XO and chaired by Gove as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has developed plans to move staff around government to boost capacity at the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Exiting the European Union and HM Revenue and Customs.
Last month civil service chief executive John Manzoni revealed that departments had been asked to provide details by the end of July of how many additional staff they would need to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, and that staff-sharing arrangements developed ahead of the UK’s initial proposed exit date in March re-activated.
So-called buddy arrangements were developed to streamline the sharing of staff, along with a government "clearing hub" for secondments across Whitehall. In February, then-Defra perm sec Clare Moriarty told the Public Accounts Committee that her department had recruited about 2,500 people to deal with Brexit, as well as seconding in others from its own agencies and lining up “about 100” loan staff from the Department for Education, Defra's buddy department.
In the same PAC session, DfT perm sec Bernadette Kelly told MPs that her buddy departments were the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence. WWe are receiving some staff in particular from the Ministry of Justice – about 40 is the current plan,” she said.
Last week Gove said the government was operating “on the assumption” that the UK would leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
A Cabinet Office spokesman told The Sun: “We are delivering this government’s commitment to leave the EU on 31 October, and are redeploying civil servants to ensure we have the right people and skills in place to meet high-priority EU exit roles.”
The Cabinet Office’s published list of XO committee attendees includes HMRC chief executive Sir Jon Thompson, the only civil servant to attend any cabinet sub-committee, reflecting the critical role of HMRC in preparing customs and UK borders for Brexit.
Chancellor Sajid Javid has told Thompson to make no-deal preparations his department’s “absolute top priority” and called for “weekly delivery-focused updates from HMRC to ensure progress remains on track” in a letter to the HMRC chief.
Responding to Javid’s demands, ARC, the section of the FDA trade union representing HMRC staff, said ministers, not civil servants, bore responsibility for mishandling Brexit.
Jawad Raza, the FDA national officer representing ARC, said: “If the chancellor wants preparation for a no-deal Brexit to be the number one priority in HMRC, he needs to ensure that this commitment can be backed up by adequate resource.”
He added: “Brexit planning remains a key priority for HMRC, but the department still needs to carry out its vital day-to-day duties of collecting tax revenues, cutting tax avoidance and evasion, enforcement and customer compliance programmes, all whilst providing advice and support to businesses.”
More than 5,000 HMRC civil servants were working on preparing the UK for leaving the EU, he said, and were “working long, unsocial hours with no additional reward”.
“Rather than looking to blame them for a lack of progress, perhaps ministers should look to themselves for the major stumbling block: a lack of ministerial strategy or direction.”