Department for Exiting the European Union has forty staff — with view to taking on a “couple of hundred”

Brexit secretary David Davis says "the most brilliant people in Whitehall" are looking to work for his new department

By Civil Service World

18 Jul 2016

The new Department for Exiting the European Union currently has just forty civil servants working for it, Brexit secretary David Davis has confirmed.

Having been launched by new prime minister Theresa May last week, DEEU — under the civil service leadership of permanent secretary Oliver Robbins — is still taking shape. It has been formed from the previous Cabinet Office unit set up to explore Britain’s options for withdrawing from the EU, and which directly converted into DEEU last week.

The unit had previously reported to Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, but he was removed from the government in May’s frontbench shake-up, with Davis, a longstanding Tory eurosceptic, now leading the fledging department.

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Speaking over the weekend, Davis said his department was “at the moment” forty-strong.

But he added: “It will grow to a couple of hundred people, that will be the size of the department in due course.”

Davis told Sky News that he had already been inundated with offers from across the civil service to join the new department, which is expected to see staff from key EU-focused organisations including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs move over in time.

“Interestingly, I am having the most brilliant people in Whitehall applying to work,” he said. “We’ve got ten people for every job. Clearly Fast Track civil servants see this as the place to be — so we’ll have good quality.”

Writing on the GOV.UK website in the wake of May’s appointment, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said the new government would mean “many changes” for civil servants.

But he sought to reassure the organisation that it could cope with a major reorganisation which the Institute for Government has already warned could prove a distraction from key priorities. 

He added: “We are in one of those moments that demonstrate most clearly the vital role of the civil service - ensuring the continuity of government while preparing the ground so that the new administration, with new priorities, can hit it running. And so it is more important than ever that we pull together to harness our unrivalled experience and expertise.”

Heywood explained Davis’s department had been set up “specifically to take forward the result of the referendum”, while Liam Fox’s new Department for International Trade — which takes on responsibility for trade and investment policy from the now-rebranded Department for Business — will be “responsible for promoting British trade across the world and negotiating new trade deals with non-EU countries”.

But Sir Andrew Cahn, former head of the government’s trade promotion body, UK Trade and Investments, warned last week that such a large-scale shake-up of Whitehall could put a brake on key policy work.

“What’s really important is that the civil servants and politicians decide very quickly who is responsible for what, decide which buildings they go in, who gets the jobs, and within a matter of days/weeks then get on with the policy,” he told the BBC.

“The trouble with departmental restructuring is that it can take months and months before anything concrete happens. If you saw what Gordon Brown did, he constantly restructured Whitehall and things didn’t get done.”

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