The civil service faces a "sheer stretch" to take Britain out of the European Union while carrying on business-as-usual, Britain's former top civil servant Lord Kerslake has said, as he urged ministers to carry out an independent assessment of Whitehall's readiness for Brexit.
Kerslake, who served as head of the civil service from 2011 to 2014, told MPs on Tuesday that there was a "genuine issue" about Whitehall's capacity to manage the "huge, complex and big stakes" process of Brexit while "at same time taking forward a set of other policy initiatives".
He told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC): "It's not possible to do that at a point when the civil service is at its lowest numbers since the second world war and continuing to fall.
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"I think it is pretty essential for the government to pause, review, take stock of what it has in front of it and then revisit the question of capacity. And I don't think it's necessarily about lots of skills that the civil service doesn't have – I think it has huge skills but there will be a real issue about numbers to deliver these very big demands."
Kerslake, who previously told CSW that key policy departments required for Brexit had "all been stripped back" in recent years, said the government "ought to do some form of independent or semi-independent assessment of its preparedness" for the "huge task" of taking Britain out of the EU.
"I think [the civil service] has huge skills but there will be a real issue about numbers to deliver these very big demands" – former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake
Kerslake was appearing at PACAC alongside former cabinet secretary Lord Butler. Butler acknowledged that Brexit was "definitely huge" and said leaving the Customs Union – an outcome signaled as likely by foreign secretary Boris Johnson last week – would likely require "an awful lot more people on the borders".
But he said he did not believe leaving the European Union should stop the government from making "efficiencies in other areas".
"I think there probably will be a net increase in the size of the civil service as a result of this and the government ought, first of all to look to redeploying people," he said. "But they shouldn't stop trying to make efficiencies which are possible."
"I think that this is a very exciting time and I think there's an opportunity to rise to it" – former cabinet secretary Lord Butler
The former cabinet secretary, who served Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair in Downing Street, said Brexit presented a "terrific opportunity for the civil service", even joking that he "wanted to be back" in Whitehall to be part of the process.
"I think that this is a very exciting time and I think there's an opportunity to rise to it," he said. "And I am confident that, on past form, the civil service will."
Civil service headcount has fallen sharply in recent years, and the number of full-time officials now stands at 316,792, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.
Kerslake pointed out that during the Second World War, civil service numbers had topped one million, and while he agreed with Butler that the organisation "should carry on seeking to be more efficient", he said it had to "resist letting good people go and then finding we recruit them back at huge cost".
"That's why I'm keen to have some assessment of what's needed to deliver the whole task for government, not just Brexit, but its wider policy ambitions and a proper assessment of what's required for that. " Kerslake said.
"And yes, there's a big challenge here. I don't believe there's any lack of appetite to deliver on behalf of the government or any sense in which people don't get the importance of pace. I do not see that.
"I do see an issue of the sheer stretch that we're asking them to make."
Kerslake's warning follows intense debate in recent weeks about the civil service's ability to handle the UK's exit from the EU.
A memo drawn up by consultancy firm Deloitte – which Downing Street has since claimed had no government input – said there was an expectation in Whitehall that between 10,000 and 30,000 extra officials would be needed for Brexit.
Another former cabinet secretary, Lord O'Donnell, meanwhile told CSW's sister title The House that, although he had confidence in the civil service to handle the process, Brexit would impose "a lot of extra requirements" on officials. Ministers would, he said, have to choose whether to "beef up" departments "or stop doing some of the things they are doing at the minute".