Concerns have been raised that the closure of the Department for Exiting the European Union today could lead to a brain drain of the officials that have negotiated the UK’s exit from the bloc.
Once the department closes, its staff are expected to formally transfer to become Cabinet Office employees, but sources said staff are being “left hanging” without any clarity about their future roles.
Employees are expected to formally transfer to the Cabinet Office once the department closes today. According to its 2018-19 annual report, the department employed 739 people at 31 March 2019, although the exact number to transfer is expected to be lower as some who had joined the department on secondment may return to their home ministry, while those whose short term contracts end today will depart.
Around 40 staff are expected to form the taskforce being created in the Cabinet Office, led by chief negotiator David Frost, to support prime minster Boris Johnson in the talks over the future trading relationship with the EU.
But Victoria Jones, the FDA trade union’s national officer for the department, told CSW that a significant proportion of staff, around 250 people, will be looking for alternative roles.
Jones said that DExEU staff had “worked exceptionally hard in an often challenging political climate to deliver the agenda of the government” and reach the exit agreement with the EU.
Now there was a need to focus on ensuring that the staff who have built up expertise were not lost. “The focus has to shift to supporting staff into new jobs that ensure the skills, expertise and experience gained over the last three and a half years is kept within the civil service,” Jones said.
“Up until very recently, members I have spoken to have shared their concern over the lack of certainty about where they would be moving to next. The commitments made by DExEU – to ensure that our members are able to find meaningful, appropriate roles within the civil service – must be honoured. Prolonged delay risks forcing these talented public servants away from where they are needed most.”
The prime minister's spokesperson has said that anyone working at the department who wanted to remain in the civil service would be found a new job, but there is no clarity about where they will end up. The staff transferring are expected to be placed in a hub in the Cabinet Office from where they will try to be matched to other civil service roles.
A wider machinery of government reorganisation is expected in the days following Brexit, which CSW understands is delaying possible redeployment of staff to departments that might match their expertise, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or the Department for International Trade. According to reports, DIT is among the departments that could be merged or abolished in the forthcoming changes.
One departmental observer told CSW that it “looks like they’ve really not managed the MOG [machinery of government changes] well” and that lots of staff had been “left hanging”, while another figure involved in talks with the department over the plans said "we don't know exactly what is going to happen to staff".
CSW also understands that staff who were on secondment in DExEU were initially told they that the department would contact their home ministry following the closure announcement on 19 December, but this advice was later changed, leaving staff to enquire as to whether they would be able to return to their previous post.
'The human side of rearranging departments'
In a blog published earlier this week urging ministers to not forget the human impact of machinery of government changes, Institute for Government associate director Tim Durrant highlighted that although DExEU was always going to be temporary, the expertise of its officials will continue to be needed
“Just because the department will be wound up does not mean the Brexit job is done. The vital functions of DExEU – supporting negotiations, co-ordinating legislation and overseeing the hundreds of projects underway to get the country ready for the end of transition – still exist,” he said.
“Theresa May’s rapid creation of the department was designed to show that she was serious about leaving the EU. The fallout from this standing start caused the government headaches throughout the first months and years of Brexit, and now it could repeat the same mistake by rapidly dismantling the department without a clear plan.”
Scattering the expertise across Whitehall would risk “a needless loss of expertise and morale”, he added.
“The prime minister still needs civil servants to work around the clock to deliver his Brexit promises, so his government should show that it recognises and values the hard work and achievements of the DExEU officials currently facing an uncertain future.”
'Skills and knowledge which will be absolutely critical'
CSW asked both the Cabinet Office and DExEU for information on how they planned to manage the transition of staff following the department’s closure. The Cabinet Office directed the queries to DExEU, and in a statement DExEU permanent secretary Clare Moriarty told CSW: “I'm extremely grateful to DExEU staff for their contribution to delivering Brexit. Colleagues across the department have worked incredibly hard over the past three and a half years, and I'm immensely proud of what we have achieved as a department – culminating in the recent granting of Royal Assent to the Withdrawal Agreement Act.
“Those who have worked in DExEU during its lifetime have acquired and developed fantastic skills and knowledge which will be absolutely critical as they move forward in their careers within the civil service. The expertise and innovative working practices developed at DExEU will contribute to shaping the future relationship with the EU and the future of the civil service.”
It is understood that prime minister Boris Johnson will visit the department today to thank staff for their work on the UK's departure since the referendum.
In a letter sent to staff ahead of the visit, he said: "This is a historic time for the UK and I want to take this opportunity to thank each of you for your hard work over the last three and a half years.
"Your contribution and that of the department has been vital to getting us to this moment.
He added: "We are leaving the EU and will become and independent country again, ready to determine our own future.
"Some of you will have joined at the beginning of the journey and others more recently, but without your contributions we would not be where we are today."
Additional reporting by John Johnston