Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer rejects claims civil service under-resourced for Brexit

New Cabinet Office minister argues that the civil service has "already risen to the challenge" of Brexit as Labour says now is not the time to be "laying off civil servants and slashing budgets"

By Matt Foster

07 Sep 2016

Ben Gummer, the new minister for the Cabinet Office, has rejected suggestions that a civil service currently at its smallest size since the Second World War is unprepared for the challenge of Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

In the wake of this summer's Brexit vote, a number of senior figures have suggested that the civil service – which, after years of public spending cuts, is now 18% smaller than when the coalition government came to power in 2010 – will struggle to carry out a task that is likely to touch on all areas of government policy.

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, told CSW after the referendum that he believed there was  "no question" that "key policy departments" likely to be involved Brexit – including the Foreign Office and the Treasury – had "been stripped back" in recent years.

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And he said:  "If they're going to get through this mammoth negotiation, they are going to have to increase resources for a period of time – and they ought logically to put a stop on hemorrhaging people."

But, in his first round of questions as the senior minister with responsibility for the civil service, Gummer rejected a claim from Labour MP Gill Furniss that Whitehall "may simply be unable to face up to the scale of the negotiations if resources stay as they are".

Furniss asked: "With Brexit negotiations looming, rather than laying off civil servants and slashing budgets is it not now time our civil service was properly resourced so it can fight for the best deal for Britain? "

Gummer hit back, stressing that the civil service was "one of the finest in the world" and pointing out that the organisation had already moved to set up two new Brexit-focused departments – the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

"I'm delighted that we've been able to resource the two new departments so successfully" – Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer

"It has already risen to the challenge of [identifying] the immediate opportunities that face us as a country with Brexit," he said.

"And that is why I'm delighted that we've been able to resource the two new departments so successfully and the two secretaries of state are very content with the support that they are receiving."

According to David Davis, the secretary of state for Exiting the European Union, the new Brexit department currently has   "over 180 staff" supported by "over 120" officials in Brussels.

The civil service's HR boss, chief people officer Rupert McNeil, has meanwhile been holding talks with all departmental perm secs and heads of function since the Brexit vote to try and size up the resources needed for the UK's withdrawal from the EU. 

Gummer told MPs on Wednesday that his department, the Cabinet Office, was already "helping to coordinate" departments as they review "their own structures and resources to ensure that we get the best deal for the whole of Britain".

Despite concerns over resourcing, Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior managers in the civil service, said a "tremendous amount" was already happening to get the civil service ready for Britain's EU departure.

"The civil servants, in both the key central departments and in teams being set up across Whitehall, are working hard to try to assess the scale of the challenge we face," he wrote on CSW this week. "This includes looking at the policy, legislative and capability issues that flow from exiting the EU. Options will be considered and ultimately ministers will decide on our key objectives and what is required to deliver them."

But he said the civil service would only be able to "deliver the best outcome possible from exiting the European Union" if it was given " clear political direction as well as the required capability and capacity" from ministers.

"This cannot be delivered as a zero sum game as some are starting to suggest, certainly not from a civil service that will have lost nearly half its resources over a decade," he said.


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