The civil service still faces a shortage of technical, commercial and project management skills needed to implement Brexit, Whitehall's chief executive has warned as he indicated the number of civil servants working on Brexit could double in the next few months.
John Manzoni, who as well as being civil service chief executive is also permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last week there were some 10,000 officials working to prepare the government for Brexit, with 5,000 more “in the pipeline”. Some of these are external recruits, while others have redeployed from other areas, he said.
Manzoni said he expected to hire between 2,000 and 3,000 more civil servants to work on Brexit if the UK and EU sign off on a final withdrawal agreement, rising to 5,000 if no deal is reached. “A lot of those are operational border guards and customs people, but many of them are the kinds of people that we need for implementation,” he said.
He said the government had “ramped up training in project management”, as well as digital and commercial skills.
But he told the committee: “I believe that we will still be short of technical people, commercial people and project management implementation people. I think those are the key areas.”
He said the civil service was having to accelerate recruitment to prepare for the increasing likelihood of no deal.
“We can’t hire those people fast enough, so we have to start really redistributing even more resources. We have redistributed a lot of resources already, but even more resources are necessary,” he told MPs.
“That brings its own issues about distributing large chunks of civil servants from one department to another, because that starts impacting the normal delivery of a particular department,” he added.
“I am not sitting here saying that all of those consequences will be mitigated, but I do believe that the civil service has been working remarkably quickly and, under the circumstances, remarkably well. We will be as prepared as we can be in the event of a disorderly Brexit.”
Appearing alongside cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, Manzoni was forced to defend his description of a potential no-deal scenario as a “disorderly exit” from the EU.
Following repeated criticism from Conservative MP and Brexit supporter David Jones for his use of the phrase, Manzoni said it was accurate because a negotiated exit would give officials “two more years to make it more orderly than we will if we don’t have a negotiated Brexit”, referring to the planned post-Brexit transition period.
“It might be inconvenient, but I am here to tell you what I think is really going on,” he told the committee.
Sedwill also insisted it was “important” to be clear there were circumstances outside the government’s control that affected how a no-deal Brexit would play out.
“I am not trying to exaggerate this, but it is important that people understand, and particularly decision makers in parliament understand, that however much we had prepared and however long we had had to prepare for it – two years is not very long to prepare, even for that – we don’t have complete control over the circumstances in which it would happen.
“It is challenging. We are preparing as best we can. I think we are in the best possible shape we can be. But it is not possible to run two entirely parallel policies for a transition moment, particularly when those policies and the operational preparations would be in tension with each other.”