Whitehall departments do not yet have enough information about ministers' plans for the triggering of Article 50 and subsequent negotiations for leaving the European Union, the Institute for Government has warned.
Dr Hannah White, director of research at the think tank said that while the UK was "rapidly approaching" Theresa May's March 2017 deadline for triggering formal exit talks with the EU, the civil service still does not have the "money, staff and information" needed to help the government "get the best deal for the country".
"This is not about revealing whether we are heading towards a hard, soft or grey Brexit," she said. "This is about being ready for the negotiations, and getting ready for life after Brexit. We know the civil service has the skill to do this, now it needs clear direction from Number 10.”
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The IfG reports that officials do not yet believe they have a clear sense of what they will need to do to prepare for the triggering of Article 50 next year, as well as what will be required of them during the subsequent negotiations process.
“This lack of clarity about what is needed before talks begin means that departments can’t confidently plan and prioritise the key issues, and risk spending valuable time and resources on things that can wait,” it says.
The think tank's research, which draws on interviews with officials, finds that while some departments – including the Treasury – are taking a proactive approach and looking beyond the immediate challenge of Brexit negotiations, others are focusing almost exclusively on preparing for those talks and responding to requests for information from the dedicated Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU).
“This lack of clarity about what is needed before talks begin means that departments can’t confidently plan" – Institute for Government
“This approach is too reactive,” the IfG says.
The think tank warns that if one department fails to do proper planning it could have consequences across Whitehall, since government needs a comprehensive picture of what is needed post-Brexit if it is to allocate time, resources and funding properly.
The report also urges departments to start planning beyond March 2017 and Article 50 negotiations, and begin looking ahead to the point when the UK leaves the EU.
“March 2019 will quickly become the key date, and the government should consider what will be required and how it might deliver it, ensuring the transition is as smooth as possible,” the IfG says.
Although DExEU expects departments to take the lead on their own planning, the report says that this is difficult when ministries do not have enough information about negotiations.
And while officials interviewed by the IfG were positive about the speed with which DExEU has begun work and praised the way it was working with other departments, the think tank said officials were still not clear how DExEU was using the information given to it by other parts of Whitehall.
"Civil servants close to DExEU told us that, despite their close involvement, DExEU was somewhere information was sent but limited feedback or sense of direction of travel had emerged,” the report says.
Officials meanwhile said it was difficult to understand how the Brexit Cabinet Committee set up by May operates, as well as its role in the Brexit process.
DExEU told the think tank that it recognised departments wanted more information, and the report said it had promised to “continue to review the amount of information it shares" with the rest of government.
Elsewhere, the Institute's new report says that the process of preparing a Great Repeal Bill to transfer EU laws into UK law is proving more complicated than first thought, with departments unclear about how decisions will be made on future UK policy in areas affected by Brexit.
There are, the IfG notes, many regulations which cannot be directly transferred into UK law and which will require policy decisions or reform before repeal can happen
For example, if a law refers to an EU regulator, the government will need to decide who continues the regulation of that issue post-Brexit.
“We were told by departmental officials that it isn’t clear who is expected to make those decisions or when,” says the report. “This is making drafting the Great Repeal Bill a bigger challenge than some initially expected.”