The permanent secretary of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has told MPs that around one-third of the 350 staff hired for work related to Brexit have come from outside government.
In an update on the department’s Brexit related workload, which is one of the largest in government, Alex Chisholm said that the department had successfully recruited 341 of the 350 people it expected to hire to work on Brexit by the end of January.
“So we are probably a little bit ahead of ourselves, which is good,” Chisholm told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee.
“The quality has been excellent. We have been able to get very good people, some with policy skills, some with knowledge of EU institutions and people with project management skills and technical skills,” he added. “Around two-thirds, if you are interested, have come from elsewhere in the civil service, and about one-third are from outside the civil service, mainly from the private sector – from business.”
Chisholm told MPs that the total number of people in the department tasked with EU exit work was closer to 600, with 100 staff relocated from other activities to work exclusively on Brexit in addition to the 350 staff recruited following a successful bid to the Treasury for additional resources – with £35m allocated in supplementary estimates earlier this month – alongside a pre-existing directorate dealing with European business.
The total figure means around 18% of the civil servants in the department are working on Brexit, across 68 work streams – estimated by the National Audit Office to be the largest workload of any department outside the Department for Exiting the European Union. There are also 180 additional people working on Brexit in BEIS agencies.
Chisholm said the department expected to need further funding in the next financial year from April as the Brexit workload increased, but admitted “we haven’t made a bid” of how much would be required. “We are in a process of trying to agree with the Treasury and DExEU, who have overall responsibility for co-ordinating across government, what seems to be the necessary resources for that, and then there will be a process of negotiation between departments, ministerial involvement and a decision finally by the Treasury on how much to give us," he told MPs. "That process continues to unfold.”
He acknowledged that one of the challenges of Brexit was the need to “work against multiple scenarios”.
“At this point in time, obviously there is the scenario that the government is able to achieve the ambitions set out most recently in the Florence speech but also in other speeches and originally the White Paper published in the early part of last year.
“But it is also necessary for us as a responsible government to plan for all eventualities, so we have to do contingency planning on the basis that there could be no agreed deal as well. That clearly means that a lot of extra planning and work has to be done compared to having a single scenario, but that is the nature of the situation we are in at the moment and the ongoing negotiations.”
The earlier there is clarity “the easier that would be from a resource and focus perspective” he said, “but we need to recognise that that is not achievable at this point in time”.
Chisholm also told MPs that most of the staff recruited to work on Brexit were permanent appointments, which he said was possible due to the churn of employees.
“We are able to do that because, as a department, our current annualised turnover rate is about 13%,” he said. “It was a bit higher than that in the year before, and we will have to see what the year ahead holds. Every year, if you think in terms of a department of about 3,000 or 3,500 people, we would recruit about 500 or so people anyway to make up for people who have left the department. That gives us quite a bit of flexibility. “
Last September the department sought external advice on why it estimated between 35 and 50 people quit every month, or between 420 and 600 people each year.