The ex-head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake, has said government departments are gearing up for the massive challenge of post-Brexit delivery in policy areas including designing a new immigration system and negotiating trade deals.
Speaking to the Radio 4's Today this morning, Kerslake said the headcount reductions between 2010 and 2016, and then the focus on Brexit, had limited the Whitehall bandwith for other public service reforms.
But he said concluding the first stage of Brexit on 31 January under Boris Johnson’s exit agreement with the EU would mean officials could move onto post-Brexit work.
“So they have to both deliver on Brexit because we’re not finished with that, and they also have to gear up for these massive implementation tasks.”
Among the areas that government will need to focus on will be the development of a points-based immigration system when the transition period from EU membership ends in December, and government capacity for trade talks.
Asked if they are ready, Kerslake, who led the civil service from 2012 to 2014, added: “I think they are. I think they recognise the challenge they are being asked to deliver.”
Kerslake, who had advised the Labour party on its plans for government, added: “I think the ‘here and now’ tasks look pretty manageable. The Conservatives were cautious in their manifesto on many issues, and their 100-day programme locked pretty cautious as well, so I think they’ll get that done and they are the incumbent party so they will have done a lot of preparation.
“I think the challenges come later down the track – a very tough trade negotiation with the EU, the introduction of a points system by January 2021 for immigration, and of course in five years’ time, [there will be] big questions about whether the NHS has been truly stabilised, whether we have a plan for social care, whether we start getting affordable housing available to people. It is the bigger delivery challenges that cause the government problems, rather than the here and now list in the Queen’s Speech.”
He acknowledged that elements of the post-Brexit policy development would require new skills in government. “This is new territory,” he said. “We can obviously learn from other countries like Australia on the immigration system, or Canada on the trade negotiations. But in the end they are going to have to develop new skills to respond to these challenges, and the timescales look long when you sit where now, but they aren’t.”
Also speaking to the programme – which aired just hours before No.10 announced the Department for Exiting the European Union will close on 31 January – Institute for Government senior fellow Catherine Haddon said reports of a looming cull in the number of government departments could hinder delivery.
The Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has long argued for a reduction in the size of government, and Haddon said that “cabinet is quite unwieldy, especially when you take in all those attending cabinet”.
She added: “We are hearing talk about a big reshuffle coming after the January 31 deadline, and that means potentially new ministers in new jobs that have to think about what they then want to do in office and how much they are aware of what their predecessors were doing.”
She added that some of Cummings’ plans for Whitehall reform, which are reported to include changes to hiring and firing processes and moves to bring in more external expertise, “might enthuse people”.
“He is looking at emphasising evidence and expertise, and devolving policy making down to different parts of the system. This is all stuff civil servants have been talking about for years, but there is obviously a morale problem. A lot of civil servants are exhausted, and the figures coming out at the moment demonstrate that morale is quite low, and there will be people who used the election period to think about changes to their jobs, so they have an institutional memory problem there.”