Departmental permanent secretaries must ask for ministerial directions if they feel that government spending to prepare for a possible no-deal Brexit does not represent value for money, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer has said.
Starmer has written to cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to urge him to ensure that perm secs across government ask for ministerial directions if their planned spending on no-deal preparations does not meet Treasury guidelines.
The Treasury's Managing Public Money guidance requires permanent secretaries to seek a direction if they think a planned policy would be inappropriate or would not deliver value for money, as it then forces ministers to issue formal instructions to proceed.
Ministerial directions can be requested on the grounds of regularity (when spending is outside legal powers); propriety (would breach parliamentary controls procedures); value for money (if an alternative proposal, or doing nothing, would deliver better value), or feasibility (where there is significant doubt about whether the proposal can be implemented). Such requests from perm secs, and ministers' responses, are published by departments.
In his letter to Sedwill, seen by the Times, Starmer said that these criteria must be applied to additional Brexit spending now planned by government. Prime minister Boris Johnson has said that no-deal Brexit planning will be a “top priority” and has instructed chancellor Sajid Javid to make sure all funds necessary are available for preparations.
Early indications of areas of extra spending include launching what Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who is leading the no-deal preparations, called the “one of the biggest peacetime public information campaigns this country has seen so that citizens, communities and businesses can prepare for what will happen if there is no deal”.
Starmer urged Sedwill to ensure that perm secs must adhere to the rules on directions, despite Johnson’s commitment to leave the EU by 31 October “do or die”.
“Written ministerial directions must be issued when the permanent secretary of a government department does not agree a minister’s decision because, for instance, it does not represent value for money or if there is doubt the plan could be ‘implemented accurately, sustainably or to the intended timetable’,” Starmer wrote.
“Given this, it is vital that there is clarity about when political decisions are taken concerning the UK’s departure from the EU, and if they are being made against the express advice of senior civil servants. This will be particularly relevant in the event of any future public inquiry or investigation into this matter.
“I would therefore request that you write to all permanent secretaries to remind them of this responsibility,” he wrote. “I would also ask for an assurance that all ministerial directions relating to no-deal plans will be published as soon as they are issued.”
Starmer is the latest figure to highlight the prospect of a public inquiry into Brexit. Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has said that he expects such a probe, as has former civil service head Lord Bob Kerslake.
A number of Brexit-related ministerial directions have been issued since December 2017, after the Treasury told departments to use them to authorise spending on projects that are required for EU exit but which have not yet been approved by parliament.
These “technical directions” allow departments to spend money when delaying would jeopardise the UK’s readiness for EU exit, but the Institute for Government think tank warned this could lead to wider transparency and accountability issues.
CSW understands that the Cabinet Office will respond to the letter in due course.