Drafting in new civil servants to deal with Britain's departure from the European Union could lead to tensions with existing staff at a time of "depleted" resources, a prominent group of academics has warned.
A new report by the The UK in a Changing Europe – an EU-focused research body funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – says the civil service may struggle to focus on domestic policy priorities as it diverts time and resources to exiting the bloc.
It warns that transposing EU legislation into UK law through the "Great Repeal Bill" promised by prime minister Theresa May will be a mammoth task for the civil service, and could end up being done "through huge volumes of hastily-drafted and poorly-scrutinised secondary legislation".
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"It is also not clear that all of the job could be completed until the terms of the UK’s future – or at least transitional – relations with the EU are settled, which may not be until only shortly before Brexit occurs," the report says.
"Brexit will thus impose a major legislative burden well into the post-2020 parliament. Since all this work will take place under the Great Repeal Act, the exact terms of that legislation could become controversial."
Meanwhile, the group also raises questions about the capacity of the civil service to put Brexit into practice, saying it is "questionable" whether officials that have "devoted their careers" to making the EU work will "enthusiastically engage in dissolving the very regimes they helped to create".
And it also warns that any push to draft in experienced trade negotiators on higher salaries than long-standing officials could create resentment in a civil service workforce that has faced years of pay restraint.
"There will be questions regarding ‘reward’ in a number of ways," the group says. "First, there are questions as to how to reward ‘success’ in Brexit negotiations.
"Second, there will be tensions if there is any further bifurcation of salaries in Whitehall – for example, providing newly recruited trade negotiators (whose loyalty might be limited by the terms of their contract) with high rewards, leaving other Whitehall civil servants further behind after a near-decade of salary stagnation."
The report flags concern that key policy issues that are not directly related to Brexit could be placed on the back burner by overstretched departments and distracted ministers.
"Whether a machinery that will be focused on Brexit-related matters will be sufficiently agile to develop comprehensive policies to address purely domestic agendas is questionable," it warns.
"There will be tensions if there is any further bifurcation of salaries in Whitehall – for example, providing newly recruited trade negotiators with high rewards" – The UK in a Changing Europe
"Tensions will emerge about the lack of initiatives that will place ministers in the limelight of the media, especially as Brexit-related negotiations get bogged down in the kind of details that political masters find unappealing."
"Since when was rational debate a bad thing?"
The group also attempts to analyse the impact of different forms of Brexit on the civil service, saying withdrawal from the EU would be "less of a challenge" for Whitehall if the UK opts for a Norwegian-style arrangement with the EU, participating in the European Economic Area and retaining access to the Single Market.
"Under such a regime, not much for the UK would change bureaucratically," the authors say. "The main issue would be to organise for the future 'flow' or provisions that would apply to the UK."
However, the Norway model looks increasingly unlikely to be adopted by the UK, and ministers have signalled that curbing the free movement of labour – which Norway must accept as a member of the European Economic Area – is now a higher priority than retaining access to the Single Market.
The civil service would, the report points out, therefore "have to prepare for a very different arrangement under a less close relationship" with the EU.
A "Swiss-style" model, which would see the UK negotiate relations with the EU on an issue-by-issue, bilateral basis, would be "highly problematic for Whitehall", it argues, even with an influx of "hard-nosed British Brexit negotiators" into the civil service.
"Beyond the much hailed recruitment drive of highly-rewarded trade negotiators, the disengagement from EU regimes will place pressure on existing systems – a ‘reformed’ immigration regime seeking to keep tabs on all non-UK citizens being the primary example," the group says.
"Other examples might include food inspections in third countries, new – or expanded – national regulatory bodies, a possible need for customs inspectors, and a strengthened competition policy if the UK were no longer bound by EU competition law. Such new regimes are likely to require further resources; again, a demand that is unlikely to be particularly palatable in the current climate of ongoing pressure on Whitehall numbers."
The new report came as Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer confirmed on Wednesday that he was personally leading a civil service-wide review of resources in the wake of the vote to leave the EU.
Gummer was pressed on the question of Whitehall's ability to handle Brexit during Cabinet Office questions, as Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair Bernard Jenkin asked whether a fresh look at capacity was needed "in view of the extra workload being piled on Whitehall".
Gummer replied: "It is going on at the moment. I am leading the review myself. We have started by looking a Senior Civil Service capacity but it will go right through the civil service. It's a very thorough process and I'm making sure I'm talking to all the ministers leading Brexit-affected departments to make sure they are happy with the capacity of their offices."
Launching the UK in a Changing Europe's new report, the organisations director, professor Anand Menon, said Brexit had the potential "to test the UK’s constitutional settlement, legal framework, political process and bureaucratic capacities to their limits – and possibly beyond".
And he hit out at Brexit campaigners for arguing that analysis of the risks of Brexit involved "talking Britain down".
"It’s a good line but a pathetic argument," he said. "Since when was rational debate a bad thing? Forewarned, surely, is forearmed and this report will help identify potential stumbling blocks ahead."