MPs have urged the civil service to get a grip on its Brexit workforce and address the “alarmingly high” staff churn rate in the Department for Exiting the European Union, following a National Audit Office report outlining skills shortages.
The NAO found that 2,409 roles had been created for Brexit work across five government departments, 13% of which had not yet been filled. It said the civil service will soon require skills in specialisms where it is already known to have shortages.
The cross-party Public Accounts Committee said it was especially concerned due to Whitehall’s poor track record on recruiting senior people to specialist roles.
The five departments – the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Department for International Trade, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – account for around half of the civil service’s 310 EU exit work streams.
Departments have initially required staff with policy skills, but the NAO found there will be a greater demand for specialist skills, such as project delivery, commercial and digital, as plans start to be implemented.
The government has identified shortages for these three specialist skills, but the NAO has warned of a lack of data on the extent of skills gaps – estimates for the number of civil servants working in those specialisms range from 14,100 to 40,700.
The level of need for operational delivery staff will depend on the outcome of negotiations, the report said.
Meg Hillier, PAC chair and Labour MP, said: “Exiting the EU creates a need for more staff in the civil service, many of which will need to be recruited urgently. So it is deeply worrying that government does not have a grip on the number of people working on Brexit.
“The difficulty isn’t just in the sheer numbers, but in making sure the right people are in the right place. I am concerned because government departments have previously struggled with the recruitment of senior people in specialist roles.”
She also said the government needed to address “the alarmingly high rate at which people are leaving” DExEU, which was created last year for the task of leaving the bloc.
DExEU calculated its average turnover at 9% a quarter, while the average turnover rate across the civil service is around 9% a year.
However, the NAO said: “DExEU’s rate is comparable to other departments with high levels of fixed-term appointments; for example, Cabinet Office’s turnover rate for 2016 was 35%.”
Most of the Brexit department’s staff are on loan from elsewhere in government – with the majority on two-year arrangements – because of the “time-limited nature of the department”, according to the NAO. It also said that DExEU was using some external expertise in the form of secondees and consultants.
But the NAO also said DExEU was “working to collect data on why people have left”. The department said most had moved on to other parts of the civil service, or their secondments had ended.
The department’s high levels of churn have long been the subject of debate: the Institute for Government’s Jill Rutter told Civil Service World earlier this year that some civil servants were “using Brexit as an opportunity to move jobs and to get promoted”.
But Victoria Taylor, FDA national officer for DExEU, wrote in CSW that high turnover was unsurprising as staff had been “brought in temporarily to set things up”.
At 122, BEIS had the largest number of Brexit roles of the 13% (323) that remain unfilled across Whitehall. It also has the largest number of EU exit workstreams, at 69.
The report said there was no centrally held figure for the number of civil servants working on Brexit across Whitehall, but the Cabinet Office had a role coordinating deployment and monitoring staffing gaps in those five departments.
“It works with DExEU to understand how resourcing demand across departments might change depending on the outcome of negotiations,” the NAO said.