Gus O'Donnell: Brexit will need more staff or fewer priorities for civil service

"I’m confident that they will get there. But no-one should be under illusions – this is an enormous job", says former cabinet secretary

By Matt Foster

17 Nov 2016

The civil service will either need to take on more staff or slim down its priorities if it is to cope with Britain's impending exit from the European Union, former cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell has said.

Speaking to CSW's sister title The House magazine, O'Donnell – who served as the UK's top official from 2005 to 2011 – said the civil service was not yet "perfectly ready" for Brexit, but expressed his confidence in the organisation's ability to adapt.

"Are they capable and in the process of gearing themselves up for it? Absolutely," he said. "I feel very confident that they will get there, but it will mean bringing in new people, developing the skills in all sorts of areas and expanding them into other areas. I’m confident that they will get there. But no-one should be under illusions – this is an enormous job."

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O'Donnell said that because Brexit “imposes a lot of extra requirements on the civil service", the government would have to either "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.”

The former cabinet secretary told The House he feared that Brexit could “crowd out other things" on the government's to-do list, including the "modernisation" of public services.

"We live in a dynamic world and policy needs to move on radically," he said. "I hope that won’t be stopped by people having to negotiate on our relationships with the EU, outside the EU. It will last for years.”

O'Donnell's call for ministers to either inject more resources into the civil service or pare back commitments chimes with the view expressed by the civil service's chief executive John Manzoni in recent weeks.

As CSW reported in early November, Manzoni told representatives of the Prospect union that government was "doing 30% too much to do it all well" and would have to re-prioritise in the face of the Brexit challenge.

"The fact is we need to go back, we need to re-plan, we need to be realistic, we can't do it all – it won't all happen within the existing envelope," he said.

Earlier this year, Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office spending watchdog, said the civil service was already "over-committed" before the vote to leave the European Union, and must "stop doing things that are not mission-critical".

"We are going to have to prioritise Brexit across government, not just in the new Brexit department," he said.

"Enormous challenge"

There have been fresh calls for Philip Hammond, the chancellor, to boost departmental resources in light of the vote to leave the EU, although the fiscal policy "reset" promised in next week's Autumn Statement is widely expected to include an infrastructure boost rather than a redrawing of spending plans agreed last year.

A memo prepared by consultancy firm Deloitte, and handed to The Times earlier this week, suggested that civil service numbers may need to rise by 30,000, although those claims have been hotly disputed by Number 10 and other government insiders.

Garry Graham, the deputy general secretary of the Prospect Union, on Wednesday urged Hammond to ease the squeeze on officials.

“Even before Brexit, the civil service faced an enormous challenge in terms of the recruitment and retention of skilled staff," he said.

“Our members have seen shrinking take-home pay since 2011, and the outlook is set to worsen with continued pay restraint through to 2020 combined with growing inflation resulting from weaker sterling. This is not the experience of similarly skilled colleagues in the private sector.

“Against this backdrop – and I can’t repeat it often enough – the civil service is at its smallest since the outbreak of the second world war.

“When you add Brexit to the mix, the situation is quite clearly unsustainable. At the very least the pay pilots must be extended so that we have pay flexibilities across the civil service to retain and recruit the staff we needed to deliver Brexit and the other government priorities.”

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