The minister charged with overseeing the UK’s exit from the European Union has dismissed claims that the civil service needs more staff to implement Brexit and subsequent trade negotiations, and suggested senior officials were positioning to increase their budgets by raising resource concerns.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, David Davis acknowledged the magnitude of the task facing Whitehall, but insisted it was not insurmountable.
“Of course it’s a big job … it probably is unprecedented, but I've seen pretty much every cabinet sec whose been in office for the last couple of decades and they think it's possible, they think it’s doable,” he said.
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Interviewer John Humphrys had told Davis he had spoken to “very senior officials who said: ‘We’re not going to be able to do this, we haven’t got the people’.”
Davis said the former top officials he had spoken to were “people who know the civil service inside out, and they're not people who are now making a bid for more budget.”
He continued: “I think [Lord] Robin Butler [cabinet secretary from 1988 to 1998] said – our civil service can cope with World War II. It can easily cope with this.”
Davis’ comments come after unions, MPs and the former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake all called for extra funding to help the civil service implement Brexit.
Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, speaking to CSW’s sister publication The House magazine last year, said the civil service did not have enough staff and money to implement Brexit, but he was confident that they were “gearing up” to cope.
Asked whether he thought the civil service was ready – both in size and in skills – for the challenge of Brexit, O’Donnell said: “There’s a simple short answer to that, and it’s no.”
He continued, however: “Nobody should be under any illusions, this is an enormous job. They are in the process of building themselves up, gearing themselves up to be ready for it. They will get there.”
He added that since Brexit “imposes a lot of extra requirements on the civil service,” that means a choice for the government between whether it “chooses to beef up [the civil service] – they’re going to have to put a lot of resources into delivering Brexit – or stop doing some of the things they are doing at the minute.”