HM Treasury’s new permanent secretary has defended his department’s contingency planning for the EU referendum result under questioning from MPs, but sidestepped the issue of whether the finance ministry is adequately resourced to handle Brexit.
Four days into his new role, Tom Scholar appeared before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions on the whole of government accounts, but MPs quickly moved on to the fallout from the June 23 referendum result.
Asked whether the Treasury was adequately resourced to handle the tasks ahead, Scholar referred to an “urgent exercise under way right now” to identify Brexit competences and skills shortages.
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“There is a civil service-wide exercise that was set in place last week to ask that question precisely,” he said.
“We are part of that as well. I think it’s clear that in some areas we’ll need new people and new skills. I think the most obvious area is trade negotiators because we haven’t been negotiating our own deals for the past 40 years.”
Last week Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin was placed in charge of the government’s Brexit unit, with former Home Office second permanent secretary Olly Robbins now leading the team.
Letwin subsequently told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that around 50 staff had been brought together from different departments to get on with “fine-grained work” in progressing the referendum decision.
Tom Scholar’s comments on Thursday hint at the wider implactions of the decision for the civil service.
Earlier in the PAC session, Scholar was asked to detail the level of contingency planning for a potential Brexit vote undertaken by Treasury staff in the run-up to the referendum. He repeatedly referred to the work underpinning the department’s published documents, viewed by some in the Leave camp as pro-remain propaganda.
But Scholar rejected the suggestion from committee member Stephen Phillips that his answers amounted to an admission that “no significant work” had been done to prepare for a Brext vote.
“No, I don’t think that is right,” he said. “The documents that I’ve referred to that the government published to inform debate … they were preparing for that.
“As a country what we need to do and what the government will need to do is to formulate an objective for the desired end-state of the UK’s relationship with the EU and there are some clear trade-offs in that.
“What the Treasury document did – admittedly only talking about the economic side of things – was to make the economic case for the openness and closeness of economic connections.
“There is then a question of how that will be reconciled with objectives that the government may have and what the Treasury has already done is provide a huge amount of analysis on which that judgement can be based.
“I’m completely confident that when the new prime minister asks for advice she or he will get that advice.”
Scholar’s first official day of work as Treasury perm sec was on Monday this week, but he was named as successor to Sir Nicholas Macpherson in March.
His first Treasury role was in 1992, but he rose to become principal private secretary to then-chancellor Gordon Brown, before leaving in 2001 to take up roles at the World Bank and the British Embassy in Washington.
Scholar returned to Whitehall in 2007, when Brown became prime minister, and played a key role in the UK’s reaction to the banking crisis.
David Cameron put him in charge of the European and Global Issues Secretariat in the Cabinet Office in 2013, where he was one of the government team who undertook the pre-referendum negotiations on a revised UK relationship with the EU.