Theresa May's Brexit department plan has "serious operational drawbacks", warn experts

Institute for Government warns of "time, cost and distraction that would inevitably come from creating an entirely new organisation"

Britain's incoming prime minister has said only a special Brexit department can give "significant expertise and a consistent approach" to the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. Image: PA

By Matt Foster

12 Jul 2016

Theresa May's pledge to set up a dedicated Brexit department could eat up valuable time and resources and prove a "distraction" from the urgent business of negotiating Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, the Institute for Government has warned.

May will become Britain's new leader on Wednesday after David Cameron fields his final round of prime minister's questions. She has already promised to establish a special Whitehall ministry focused on taking the UK out of the EU, to be led by a dedicated cabinet minister who is able to provide "significant expertise and a consistent approach" to Brexit.

Such a move would represent a significant step up from the immediate response to the EU vote, which has seen a cross-government team of civil servants established in the Cabinet Office under the political direction of minister Oliver Letwin.

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But a new report by the IfG's Jill Rutter and Julian McCrae says May's preferred option may have to be phased in to avoid significant disruption. 

While Rutter and McCrae back the case for a senior Cabinet minister to be appointed in order to do "much of the heavy lifting" for May on Brexit, the think tank says much will ride on whether she wants to put that colleague in charge of withdrawal negotiations or give them a wider policy remit, perhaps including trade.

If their remit is confined solely to Brexit talks, the IfG says there is an "overwhelming case" for the new minister to be supported by a smaller Cabinet Office team, keeping them close to Number 10 and in touch with the existing EU-focused parts of government.

But if the Brexit minister has wider responsibility for policy areas, Rutter and McCrae say there is "a stronger case for creating a fully-fledged Ministry for Brexit" along the lines proposed by May.

"However, there are serious operational drawbacks to this option – in particular the time, cost and distraction that would inevitably come from creating an entirely new organisation," they warn. "These would have to be carefully weighed against any perceived benefits."

"New departments should only be created where there is an irrefutable business case that this is the best option and adequate advance planning has been undertaken" – Institute for Government

The think tank acknowledges that a new ministry of Brexit could provide a "durable, long-term home" for a minister should they be given wider policy responsibilities, and says having dedicated secretary of state could give European Union issues real clout around the Cabinet table.

However, the report's authors warn that setting up a new department would cost money and take time, adding: "New departments should only be created where there is an irrefutable business case that this is the best option and adequate advance planning has been undertaken."

Churn warning

The IfG points out that civil servants may also be reluctant to make the leap to a new department "that could have a limited shelf life", and say that the dedicated ministry would have to quickly establish new relationships with existing Cabinet Office EU teams, meaning it would be "slower to get off the ground".

It also suggests that the civil service would need "new forms of flexible contracts" to allow people with the skills needed to negotiate Brexit to enter the workforce "quickly and for variable periods".

"The ability to retain people will also be crucial – the civil service generally, and the Cabinet Office in particular, suffer from high levels of churn."

The IfG has previously highlighted the upheaval that creating new departments can cause, saying that past attempts to restructure Whitehall – such as New Labour's ill-fated Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, set up to create a ministerial home for deputy prime minister John Prescott – had focused too much on “party-political” goals, and had failed to address long-standing problems with the way the civil service is run.

Shadow civil service minister Louise Haigh has also urged caution on a re-jig of the machinery of government, joining those – including former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake – who have warned that the civil service already faces the prospect of untangling the UK's relationship with the EU while delivering on tight spending settlements.

"Departments need to ask very seriously whether now is really the time to lead an introspective and cross-departmental reorganisation" – Labour's Louise Haigh

"The budget cuts pencilled in will mean the civil service will face up to massed ranks of the Brussels bureaucracy in prolonged negotiations with one hand tied behind their backs and while colleagues around them are being made redundant," she said.

"And departments such as BIS [Business, Innovation and Skills], which will be leading our new global trade relationships need to ask very seriously whether now is really the time to lead an introspective and cross-departmental reorganisation when they should be focussed on getting the best possible deal for Britain."

"Cost and distraction"

Speaking last month, Melanie Dawes, chair of the civil service people board said departments must not “hunker down” as the EU withdrawal process called for the "brightest and best" officials to lend their skills to Brexit.

And she called on civil service leaders to be open to the idea of losing their top staff to the effort.

"I think we’ve got to be collective and be brave and come together," said Dawes, who is also permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Launching the report, McCrae, the IfG's deputy director, said planning for and delivering Britain's exit from the EU would "inevitably preoccupy Whitehall and the new government in the coming months and years".

"Theresa May will soon be deciding how to organise Whitehall to negotiate and implement Britain’s exit from the EU," he added.

"The arguments point strongly to appointing a dedicated Cabinet Minister for Brexit, based in the Cabinet Office. If the new PM does decide to create a new ministry, then this should be housed in the Cabinet Office initially, to avoid the vital first few months being dominated by the cost and distraction of setting up a new organisation from scratch.”

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