Former civil service head Lord Kerslake: Brexit challenge should prompt rethink on job cuts

Exclusive: Former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake tells CSW that key departments tasked with making Brexit work have been "stripped back" in recent years and will have to have an injection of resources

The former civil service head said there was "no need to panic" about the immediate impacts of last week's referendum – but urged a rethink on headcount reductions. Image: Mark Weeks for CSW

Ministers may need to "fundamentally" rethink the government's policy of cutting civil service numbers so that officials can deal with the challenge of Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, former civil service head Lord Kerslake has said.

The civil service is now at its smallest size since the second world war, employing some 392,500 full-time staff, according to the latest figures. That represents an 18% drop since the coalition government came to power in 2010, and the most recent government-wide Spending Review has seen most departments draw up plans for further headcount reductions.

But, speaking to Civil Service World, Lord Kerslake – who served as head of the civil service from 2011 to 2014 – said there was "no question" that "key policy departments" likely to be involved in untangling Britain's relationship with Europe – including the Foreign Office, Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – had "all been stripped back" in recent years.

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"If they're going to get through this mammoth negotiation, they are going to have to increase resources for a period of time – and they ought logically to put a stop on hemorrhaging people," Lord Kerslake said.

He added: "The point is that they are going to have to grow capacity very rapidly to negotiate exit."

While Kerslake said there was "no need to panic" about the immediate impacts of last week's referendum – which saw 52% of voters back withdrawal from the EU – the former head of the civil service said leaving the bloc would "change almost every aspect of government policy", and require key departments to "grow capacity very rapidly to negotiate exit".

"Whoever ends up being the prime minister is going to need to look to the civil service to help them deliver Brexit in a way that does the least damage to the country and opens up the best opportunities" – Lord Kerslake

"There's a massive negotiation to be done and what you have to do is to redeploy your brightest and best into the negotiating team," he said.

"The question for ministers is: have you recognised the impact of what's happened for the civil service and the need to rethink fundamentally the approach over the next few years?

"Bluntly, you should look very carefully at whether you put a halt on cutting the policy capacity of the civil service, because otherwise you'll just buy it back at a huge cost from consultants."

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood on Friday wrote to officials urging them to show "our customary calm, integrity and commitment" as the dust settles on Britain's historic decision.

"The task falls to us to support the government, and the new prime minister when appointed, in carrying forward the clear decision of the British people to leave the European Union and set a new direction for the country," the current head of the civil service wrote, in a message passed to CSW.

Kerslake said the referendum result was likely to have come as "a huge shock to the civil service" who he said "will have, over many years, come to accept and indeed absorb the whole notion of us being in the European Union".

"It has been the way things are for a long time, so this is a huge shock and a huge change," he told CSW. "And the test of the civil service is how well it can adapt to this new world that it’s got to think about." 

While Kerslake said some of the effects of the Brexit decision – include reaction from global markets – would be "beyond anybody's control", he said the civil service had a key role to play in "how well we exit from Europe".

He added: "That will be crucially dependent on the civil service, so whoever ends up being the prime minister is going to need to look to the civil service to help them deliver Brexit in a way that does the least damage to the country and opens up the best opportunities."

Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) and a long-standing Conservative eurosceptic, said he did not believe the wider policy of reducing civil service numbers needed to be reconsidered in the wake of the vote.

Instead, he urged a focus on recruiting officials with knowledge of "trade negotiations and tariff agreements and the kind of things we used to do before we were in the single market".

He told CSW: "The sort of civil servants we're talking about are what we might call the Northcote Trevelyan bit of the civil service – they are policy, and policy advice, and negotiation.

"We’re not talking about the thousands of DWP staff or the thousands of prison officers. We are not talking about that bit of the civil service. I don't think numbers are the issue. But, obviously, part of what we are spending on administration in Brussels needs to be spent on our own administration."

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