Brexit secretary David Davis’ dismissal of concerns over Whitehall’s capacity to manage the UK’s departure from the European Union has sparked anger from one of the civil service’s main unions.
Prospect, which represents professionals such as engineers and scientists, said it was astonished by the comments and that Davis’s comparisons with the magnitude of the service’s work in the Second World War ignored the resourcing issues in question.
Davis said in a BBC Radio 4 interview yesterday that senior officials voicing fears over the civil service’s ability to cope with Brexit were “making a bid for more budget”, while former cabinet secretaries he had spoken to believed the task was “doable”.
David Davis: Old hands believe civil service can manage Brexit
Brexit could cost departments £65m a year to implement, says Institute for Government
Extra Brexit cash not enough for the Foreign Office, MPs warn
The Department for Exiting the European Union’s principal minister accepted that Brexit was “a big job” but concluded by quoting Lord Robin Butler as saying: “Our civil service can cope with World War II. It can easily cope with this.”
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said the Brexit secretary had been reckless with his facts.
“David Davis has sought to invoke the Blitz spirit in his argument that the civil service needs no more resources to deal with the challenges of Brexit,” he said.
“Between 1939 and 1944 the non-industrial civil service increased in numbers by 404,000 – a figure greater than the current civil service.
“Perhaps if Mr Davis is seeking to make an analogy, he should be more careful if he is wanting to make a serious point.”
Prospect said its research on former senior Whitehall officials’ real opinions about the demands of Brexit showed an acceptance that resourcing needed to be addressed.
It said Butler had told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last year that the task facing the government and the civil service was “definitely huge”.
Prospect said Butler’s evidence to an October hearing on the impact of Brexit had included an acceptance that leaving the EU’s customs union would require “an awful lot more people on the borders” and that overall “there probably will be a net increase in the size of the civil service”.
It added that former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake had told the same session that there was “a genuine issue about capacity” to manage the demands of Brexit at the same time as taking forward the other policy initiatives the government wanted to pursue.
“I think it is not possible to do that at a point where the civil service is at its lowest numbers since the Second World War and continuing to fall,” Kerslake said.
Prospect pointed out that Kerslake had directly addressed Butler’s comparison to the demands of the Second World War, observing that the civil service had undergone a “drastic change in its size and composition” between 1944, when its numbers were in excess of 1 million, and 2016, when he cited numbers as 392,000.
Kerslake said he was able to see an issue of “the sheer stretch” that the civil service was being asked to make.
Earlier this week, FDA general secretary Dave Penman urged prime minister Theresa May to recognise the demands that her vision for the UK's departure from the EU would place on the civil service.
"The task of delivering that success will rest, to a large extent, on the capacity and capability of the civil service, so it is disappointing that she has once again failed to deliver any further investment in it," he said.
"Every government department will be affected by Brexit and if the prime minister really wants a 21st century global Britain, then she has to recognise the investment in the resources and skills of the civil service that is required to deliver it."