MacNamara: Whitehall processes 'bent out of shape' by Brexit work ahead of pandemic

Former official says Brexit preparations led to the centre holding too much power, with departments "disempowered"
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By Tevye Markson

02 Nov 2023

The normal processes and divisions of responsibility across Whitehall were “bent out of shape” in the years leading up to the pandemic, Helen MacNamara has said.

The former deputy cabinet secretary said in her witness statement to the Covid Inquiry, published yesterday, that in January 2020, the government was not in a good position to respond to the Covid-19 crisis due to a combination of systemic weaknesses and political circumstance.

Fundamental to this, she said, was that the centre of government in the Cabinet Office had been “significantly altered” through the process of exiting the European Union.

By the time the government needed to respond to Covid-19, Whitehall “had become accustomed to patterns of working that were not helpful”, with too much control in the centre at the expense of perspectives from other departments, she said.

MacNamara said a key reason for this was the changing nature and dynamics of the Cabinet secretariats during Brexit preparations, with the Cabinet Office EU Secretariat becoming dominant over the Economic and Domestic Secretariat and “working in an unusual style for a secretariat that spanned across domestic as well as international policy”.

She said historically, the EDS had been responsible for coordinating departments to facilitate collective agreement on international issues, but by 2018 the EU Secretariat had taken over this role, as well as continuing to advise the PM on policy and strategy. Lines were “further blurred” by the Department for Exiting the EU also taking on some of the coordinating role, she added.

MacNamara, was director of the EDS from 2014 to 2016, said there are good arguments as to why this unusual arrangement – “a small, very centralised command and control structure” – was deemed necessary for something as significant as negotiating the Brexit deal, “particularly when the cabinet was somewhat divided, confidentiality so important in negotiations and the leaking of confidential information prevalent”.  

But she said the structure “created some issues with ministerial accountability and collective responsibility, as it brought ever more issues into the centre and disempowered or disregarded line departments”.

Officials responsible for advising on a policy and ministers accountable for it were often “not included in the decision making” for EU policy; while the commonplace use of "reading rooms" before cabinet instead of circulating key documents meant that ministers would only see the final text shortly before being asked to sign it off without advice from their departmental officials.

MacNamara said collective responsibility and the normal operation of the cabinet secretariats “usually mitigates against being able to commission, write and sing the theme tune”. However, the changes during the EU exit period “set a new normal for everything else that was hard to reverse” because “the Cabinet Office is more clay than elastic; it does not spring back into shape”.

This operating pattern “had significant implications for the response to Covid-19 as some of the culture and ways of working directly translated into the way both the Cabinet Office/No.10 and departments responded to the crisis”, MacNamara said.

She said this was reinforced by the fact that many of the officials who had been working on Brexit in the Cabinet Office after DExEU was shut down were later moved onto the Covid response.

“By the time of the Covid-19 response, Whitehall had become accustomed to patterns of working that were not helpful – both in terms of too much control in the centre (or illusion of control) at the expense of perspectives and considerations of other departments, and in departments being disempowered, and those officials and ministers being accustomed to sitting back,” she said.

This also meant the Cabinet Secretariat, which supports the cabinet secretary, “had fallen out of the habit of facilitating debate between departments and encouraging the airing of fresh or different perspectives as part of problem solving”, MacNamara added. She said operating without these checks and balances “fails to get the best from the departments” and “risks a kind of groupthink in the centre”.

“In my view, this is antithetical to good decision making in general… but was especially so for something as complex… as how to respond to Covid,” MacNamara added.

Expanding on the issue of policy being driven forward without checks and balances during her evidence session on Wednesday, MacNamara said: “One of the things that I think happened during the pandemic overall was that… the ability for somebody to write something and then it to become a published document from the government was just so quick.”

MacNamara said one example of this was the May 2020 roadmap for coming out of lockdown. She said she had emailed Martin Reynolds, the then-principal private secretary to the PM expressing concern that the document had been drafted “without any debate or advice about the policy or choices contained within it and without it being shared with government ministers”.

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