Two years after Theresa May triggered the Article 50 process for the UK’s exit from the European Union the enduring impact of Brexit on the civil service cannot be understated, according to the Institute for Government.
In a report to mark what the prime minister repeatedly insisted would be “Brexit day”, the think tank said the months since 2016’s referendum decision had seen the rules of government, parliament and politics “ripped up” and put the civil service under “unprecedented pressure”.
The IfG’s snapshot report said attitudes to the civil service’s impartiality had been weakened, while the future of Whitehall institutions such as the Home Office were in doubt as other ministries – principally the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – were strengthened.
The Brexit Effect: How government has changed since the EU referendum points to dramatic increases in staff numbers – with Defra alone taking on “nearly 3,000 staff” since the referendum as part of a wider headcount boost of 20,000.
But it says that regardless of when – or if – the UK leaves the EU, the structures of government could be permanently reshaped.
Report author Lewis Lloyd said the uncertainties of the Brexit process meant there were no guarantees that major government departments would continue to exist, with questions about the future role of the Department for International Trade and – less surprisingly – the Department for Exiting the European Union as well as the Home Office.
“Staff numbers have increased dramatically, but existing work has had to be put on hold to cope with Brexit,” Lloyd said.
“The wider landscape of government is also changing, with three new arm’s length bodies guaranteed and many more expanding in a reversal of the coalition’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’.”
Some quangos may never be needed, depending the nature of the UK’s departure from the European Union. The IfG said the Trade Remedies Authority was a good example of this: the organisation would be immediately required to help protect UK businesses from unfair international competition following a no-deal Brexit, but if the UK remains part of the customs union it will be surplus to requirements.
Last year Civil Service World reported that DIT perm sec Antonia Romeo had sought a written ministerial direction for £9m to fund the TRA's creation because the bill underpinning its existence had yet to become law. Almost one year on, the IfG noted that the authority was still in shadow form because the Trade Bill had yet to get through its parliamentary stages.
Flagship domestic policies 'frozen'
If core Brexit legislation is struggling to progress, the situation is worse still for other important domestic policy that is easier to push back.
Report author Lloyd said the NHS Reform Plan, the social care green paper and Domestic Abuse Bill had suffered significant delays as a result of the reprioritisation of staff and that the situation was not going to improve any time soon.
“If a Brexit deal is agreed, the civil service will have to continue working at full tilt to negotiate and implement the detail of the future UK-EU relationship in time for the end of 2020, when the proposed transition period ends,” he said.
“Even with an extension to the end of 2022, this is an incredibly ambitious timeline. If there is no deal, the foreseeable future will be a case of all hands on deck to minimise disruption and mitigate any impacts to the UK’s security and economy.”
Staff-churn woes worsen
The IfG also said Brexit had “exacerbated” ongoing civil service staff-churn issues, as civil servants took the opportunity for speedy promotions – and pay rises – presented by thousands of new roles that needed to be filled at short notice on the internal jobs market.
It said the turnover problems applied to senior staff as well as juniors and was “disruptive both for the non-Brexit work they originally left behind and the EU exit teams they pass through”.
On civil service impartiality, the report said Brexit put the relationship between ministers and civil servants “under the microscope” and fuelled a suspicion among some ministers and MPs that the civil service was “institutionally anti-Brexit”.
The report said such suspicion had fuelled “overt hostility and personal attacks” in the case of former UK permanent representative in Brussels Sir Ivan Rogers and more recently lead senior negotiator Olly Robbins.
“The prime minister has been notably reluctant to defend her principal adviser in public, leaving that instead to her cabinet secretary and MPs in parliament,” it said.
Lloyd’s report added that one legacy of HM Treasury’s role in producing pre-referendum forecasts in favour of then-prime minister David Cameron’s pro-Remain stance was that government economic analysis was seen as “fair game for those who disagree with it” – even while in office.
IfG director Bronwen Maddox said it was clear Brexit would have “an enduring effect” on government, whatever the eventual outcome.
“It has fundamentally changed the shape of the civil service, the functioning of parliament and how government operates,” she said.
“Thirty-three months since the EU Referendum, the Brexit effect on government is considerable and far from over.”