Oliver Letwin: Brexit unit will require “very considerable flexibility” on civil service pay and terms

Oliver Letwin tells Foreign Affairs committee that the Brexit unit has no budgetary constraints so far, though it currently only exists in “virtual” form

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin. Image: PA

Civil service rules over pay will need to be loosened if the government’s new Brexit unit is to get the people it needs, according to Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin.

Downing Street announced last week that a new team had been set up under Letwin, bringing together the “brightest and best” officials to start planning options on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union for whoever succeeds David Cameron as Tory leader. 

Cameron is set to step down in September after Britain voted to leave the EU, and has appointed the Home Office’s second permanent secretary Olly Robbins to lead the new team.

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Speaking at a Foreign Affairs committee hearing on the impact of leaving the EU, Letwin said: “I haven’t any doubt that recruiting the trade negotiators we need is going to be something that requires very considerable flexibility on the terms offered.

"I’m obviously anxious to ensure that we do so on a basis that is good value for money and gets the right people.”

Asked if he had a budget for the team, Letwin said he had spent the last six years in goverment working with tight financial settlements.

But he added: “In this instance the importance of the matter is so great for our country, and the amounts involved in transferring civil servants and hiring some outsiders so small, that I’m glad to say that nobody has suggested any budgetary constraints.”

Letwin could not say how big the team would be, but told MPs that officials that had already identified pockets of expertise across Whitehall which will feed into the unit.

He cited 43 people at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and a “small number” at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development who were "natural candidates" because they already dealt with trade policy.

The team will be working through a "great deal of factual work…fine grain detailed work", Letwin said, in order to prepare option papers for the new cabinet.

Letwin also said that Robbins, the civil servant in charge of the EU unit, was already looking at the skills the government needs to execute Brexit.

“He is also charged with identifying gaps in our armoury, things that Whitehall isn’t collectively equipped to do today,” said Letwin.

The minister refused to confirm or rule out the possibility of hiring people who have worked for foreign governments and the European Commission, as well as individuals from academia and the private sector.

“I’ve instructed my officials to study where the very best expertise in the world is to be got from and how best to get it,” he said.

Over the next eight weeks the new team will be a “virtual” one, Letwin added, with people “physically located in their home departments". In terms of what will happen to the team after September “we need to leave open to the new prime minister,” he said.

"Dereliction of duty"

During the hearing, MPs were critical of the government’s failure to make wide-ranging contingency plans for a Leave vote. Committee chair Crispin Blunt called the lack of planning a “dereliction of duty” and an “act of gross negligence”.

Mike Gape, a Labour member of the committee, said after the session that Letwin’s responses to questions on preparations to leave the EU had been “disappointing”.

Letwin was also asked to clarify government’s position on how to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which triggers two years of formal neogitations on Britain's departure from the EU.

“I’m advised by the government lawyers that the government lawyers' view is that it clearly is a prerogative power,” he said.

A prerogative power is officially held by the Queen – but in practice only deployed on advice from the cabinet or prime minister.

Such a power does not need to be approved by a vote in parliament, though in the recent past prime ministers have called advisory votes before using prerogative powers, for example on the Iraq war and Syrian air strikes.

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