The civil service will be competing with the private sector for project management, technical and digital skills ahead of Britain’s departure from the European Union, yet it doesn’t have a “credible” recruitment plan, MPs argued in a report today.
As prime minister Theresa May gathers her senior ministers in an attempt to reach an agreement on the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU, the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has outlined a range of criticisms of the speed at which preparations are taking place in Whitehall.
The PAC also complained of a lack of transparency around costs and progress made on the 313 Brexit workstreams, and unclear accountabilities for the task.
In a report published today, the committee called on government to “act urgently” to coordinate with departments to identify skills gaps, and to recruit and place staff in the numbers required.
It also called for a streamlined system of accountability on Brexit, and more transparency from the Department for Exiting the European Union around the workstreams and from Treasury on how departments will report the costs of that work.
The PAC pointed to Whitehall’s long-standing capability challenges, which have hindered the delivery of previous major projects. “There is a particularly critical need for project management, technical and digital skills,” it said. “Departments will be competing for these skills against private sector organisations also preparing for Brexit.
“While the Cabinet Office has identified possible recruitment channels for some specialisms, it has not developed a thorough plan for how departments will access the skills needed.”
But the committee also said Brexit could provide “a real opportunity to make long-term improvements”. The Cabinet Office has said that changes made in recent years have enabled the civil service to recruit and allocate staff for Brexit centrally – and the PAC noted that Brexit was a chance to accelerate progress and rebuild the skills lost when government was shrinking in the earlier part of this decade.
Civil service chief executive John Manzoni – who was brought into the Cabinet Office from BP in 2014 initially as the head of the Major Projects Authority to boost Whitehall’s project delivery capability – has conceded several times that the second phase of Brexit work, implementation, will be trickier to get right.
The first phase, identifying the work needed for a successful Brexit, had largely involved policy professionals and had gone “extremely well”, he told the PAC in December. Implementation “is a process that Whitehall is less familiar with”, he added.
"[It] is not just about numbers; it is also about the sorts of people recruited by the department. We will continue to adapt as need arises." – Government spokesperson
In its report the committee said some departments’ Brexit plans were still under-developed, risking their ability to identify the people and skills needed to implement them in time. DExEU and the Cabinet Office have acknowledged this work needs to be “ramped up”, it added.
A government spokesperson responding to the report said the government was committed to ensuring departments have access to the right skills and resources “to deliver a successful Brexit”, and would continue to recruit the “brightest and best talent from the public and private sectors”.
They pointed out that two new departments, DExEU and the Department for International Trade, had been set up for this task, and that capability within departments is regularly reviewed.
"This was made clear by Philip Rycroft, permanent secretary at DExEU, who told the committee that resourcing in his department is kept under constant review, and that is not just about numbers; it is also about the sorts of people recruited by the department,” they added. “And we will continue to adapt as need arises."
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect trade union, said the concern over civil service capacity was no surprise given the “dramatic headcount reductions” and pay restraint experienced since 2010.
"The civil service is at its smallest since the second world war and we face the greatest challenge the UK has faced in peace time,” he said.
"This is combined with a lack of clarity from ministers both in terms of the implications of Brexit and supporting negotiations but also planning for the aftermath of any deal being done. Added to this ministers consistently fail to recognise the need for additional resources and to prioritise policy initiatives in recognition of the huge strain the civil service is under."
“It is one thing to identify the amount of work required to deliver Brexit. It is quite another to do it." – PAC's Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
The PAC report criticised departments for failing to take seriously the process of reprioritisation made necessary by Brexit. Despite assurances from senior leaders – HM Revenue and Customs chief executive Jon Thompson told the committee in October that it wasn’t credible for the tax agency to continue with all its existing reform programmes alongside Brexit – the committee said there was no evidence that existing work had been stopped or that departments had reprioritised commitments “with the speed or on the scale needed”.
The Single Departmental Plans for 2017-18, not published until December, “made no reference to what will be stopped or de-prioritised as a result of Brexit”, the report added.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a Conservative MP and PAC deputy chair, said: “It is one thing to identify the amount of work required to deliver Brexit. It is quite another to do it.
“The government has identified over 300 work streams to complete as a consequence of the UK’s departure from the EU – a byzantinely complicated task with the potential to become a damaging and unmanageable muddle.”
The PAC has called for those work streams to be published by April alongside a timeline of action, so it can keep track of progress.
“It is concerning that government departments still have so far to go to put their plans into practice,” Clifton-Brown added. “DExEU and the Cabinet Office accept the pace of work must accelerate, a point underlined by DExEU’s senior civil servant when he told us that there needs to be a ‘sharp focus on the world of the real’.
“That real world will not wait for the government to get its house in order. There is much at stake and we expect our committee, Parliament and the public to be kept meaningfully informed on what progress is being made, and at what cost.”