Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has said that the civil service is “building the new strengths we will need” across government after Brexit, and insisted preparation for day one outside the European Union is well underway.
In an article published in the latest edition of Civil Service Quarterly to mark one year until the UK leaves the bloc, Heywood said there were “few, if any, peacetime precedents for the scale and complexity of the constitutional and organisational challenge of withdrawing from the EU”.
However, he highlighted that many of the preparations were “drawing on traditional civil service strengths in policymaking, law and finance”, and added that “we have not taken our eyes off what comes after Brexit, and building the new strengths we will need”.
Describing Brexit as “a major test of the civil service’s ability to adapt and change”, Heywood highlighted areas where work was already underway to build a new capacity ahead of Brexit. In particular, he flagged up the cross-government Border Planning Group, which works with all departments responsible for border-related activity – around 30 separate departments and agencies, including HM Revenue and Customs, Defra and the Home Office – to plan the new border regime that will be needed.
This “typifies the detailed, collaborative approach needed to make sure we are ready for withdrawal under all scenarios”, including leaving the EU without a deal on the future relationship with the EU, he said. “This cross-departmental group is planning not only for day 1 after withdrawal - to ensure continuity of border management, maintaining security, the flow of goods and people, and the collection of revenues – but also for the longer term, so that the border functions properly after Brexit.”
The group is focused on the implementation and operations, rather than policy, and has been tasked with defining all the changes needed to ensure that the border operates after leaving the EU, Heywood said.
Heywood’s comments come as prime minister Theresa May hinted that the introduction of a post-Brexit customs regime could extend beyond the end of the planned transition period from EU membership to new arrangements, which expected to last until 2020.
Speaking to MPs yesterday, May said that the introduction of new custom regimes by HMRC could extend beyond the transition period, potentially meaning Britain would stay in the European customs union longer.
“We are looking at different potential customs arrangements for the future in order to deliver on the commitments that we have made. We are now the point at being able to look in more detail with the European commission at some of those proposals,” she told the Liaison Committee.
“I think it is fair to say that, as we get into the detail and as we look at these arrangements, then what becomes clear is that sometimes the timetables that have originally been set are not the timetables that are necessary when you actually start to look at the detail and when you delve into what it really is that you want to be able to achieve.” she told the Liaison Committee.
“We are looking at different potential customs arrangements for the future in order to deliver on the commitments that we have made. We are now the point at being able to look in more detail with the European commission at some of those proposals. And I think it is fair to say that, as we get into the detail and as we look at these arrangements, then what becomes clear is that sometimes the timetables that have originally been set are not the timetables that are necessary when you actually start to look at the detail and when you delve into what it really is that you want to be able to achieve.”
Elsewhere in his article, Heywood said that the year since the government had triggered the EU exit process by invoking Article 50 has seen substantial progress, and he said the draft withdrawal agreement and transition period agreed this month were “another critical milestone along the way to exit”.
He praised the work being done by the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Government Legal Department, which has recruited over 350 new lawyers, to incorporate over 40 years of European law into domestic law.
As well as legal, other cross government functions including commercial, digital, finance and HR, have begun work in turning the outcomes from negotiations into deliverable work programmes, procurements and projects, he said.
In addition, the Cabinet Office's Europe Unit, established in October 2017 when Olly Robbins was moved from his post as permanent secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union to coordinate the government’s Brexit policy, had “supported both the formal negotiations in Brussels and the process of coherent and timely decision-making in the UK”, Heywood said.
Lastly, he concluded that civil servants “could hardly fail to be aware of the recent, public, conversation around the reliability of analysis and information produced by parts of the organisation in relation to Brexit” – alluding to comments made by DExEU minister Steve Baker who claimed government economic forecasts were “always wrong”.
Heywood added: “I would only restate that we are constitutionally committed – and culturally conditioned – to give honest, objective, impartial advice, based on the available evidence, regardless of any other factor. I have complete faith in my fellow civil servants and that we will continue to meet this high standard.”