Ministers are planning to shelve "very few" of the government's existing commitments to free up resources for Brexit, Britain's top civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood has told CSW, in spite of warnings that Whitehall is already overloaded as it prepares for Britain's departure from the European Union.
In the wake of the UK's vote to leave the EU, a number of figures have said that the civil service – which has cut headcount by almost 20% in the past six years – is doing too much and will have to pare back some policies to allow for the urgent extra work required by Brexit.
Civil service chief executive John Manzoni has previously described the civil service as doing "30% too much to do it all well", while Sir Amyas Morse – head of the National Audit Office spending watchdog, last year urged ministers to stop asking departments to run on "perpetual overload".
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But in an exclusive interview with Civil Service World – his first since the Brexit vote – Heywood made clear that the government intends to press ahead with the majority of the Conservatives' 2015 manifesto goals, while also working on Theresa May's new policy priorities and implementing Brexit.
“Obviously, when you have a new government with a new set of priorities the logical question is: well, do the old priorities still stand and how many of these new priorities become even more important than the pre-existing workload?" he said.
“So we’ve had those explicit conversations. And I think the honest truth is that very few of the original set of priorities can be dropped.
"The prime minister feels very strongly that she and other ministers were elected on a Conservative Party manifesto that must still stand. So, of course, she’s added some further priorities and we’ve got the Brexit programme as well. But, you know — one way or another we are going to deliver that package. That’s the civil service’s job.”
"One way or another we are going to deliver that package. That’s the civil service’s job" – Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood on the government's agenda
Concerns have also been raised since the Brexit vote about whether a smaller civil service has the resources to handle the task before it.
But despite some speculation that the referendum result might prompt a rethink of departmental spending plans, most of Whitehall is still working to deliver tough settlements agreed with the Treasury in 2015.
Heywood told CSW that it was important for civil servants to be "resourced to do the job that they’re asked to do", and said individual departments were free to "make their case for more resources to the Treasury".
But he added: “The Treasury of course, and I as head of the civil service, expect that there will be some reprioritisation. This is not just a case of extra resources. Because, as a whole, we’ve got to meet the fiscal ceilings that we’ve got. And the civil service certainly can’t be exempt from the overall requirement to control public spending.
"So we will live within our means, we will try and reprioritise, and where a case can be made for extra resources, as in the case when you’ve got a new department like DExEU or DIT, of course the Treasury will find a way of making that happen out of the normal reserve.”
Heywood estimated that the civil service "at the moment requires 1,500 to 2,000 extra roles", including "another 100 senior civil servants" – but he said Whitehall was already "two-thirds of the way" through filling those posts, and praised the way the organisation had stepped up to the challenge of Brexit.
“I think we’ve shown once again over the last few months, which has been a very, very intense period, just how effective we are in supporting an incoming administration because, let’s face it, we’ve got a new prime minister, a new set of ministers, a completely new agenda. We have turned on a sixpence and are now focused very much on that and serving the country in that way."
DExEU and DIT set-up makes "perfect sense"
Elsewhere in his CSW interview, Heywood – who has served as Britain's most senior official since 2012 – defended the creation of two new ministries, the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade, to oversee the Brexit process.
Some former officials, including Heywood's predecessor Lord O'Donnell, have questioned the decision to hive off trade negotiation from the broader work of leaving the EU, while the Institute for Government think tank has described the set-up as a "distraction" that risks giving rise to fresh Whitehall turf wars.
But the cabinet secretary revealed that he had held talks with May and her senior team before she became prime minister on the decision to set up DExEU and the DIT. And he pointed out that the two new ministries are doing specific jobs – exiting the EU and striking trade deals – which Whitehall has never had to deal with before.
“There wasn’t a team of 400 people sitting somewhere else in Whitehall doing that job," he said of DExEU.
"So these were start-ups. And the question was: do we bring them all into the Cabinet Office’s role? Do we add to them to another department’s role? Do we create one new department that had two massive new roles – one to exit the European Union and the second to negotiate a whole series of trade deals? Or do we set up two, bespoke organisations for two very bespoke challenges. And we decided to do the second of those things.
“I think, frankly, looking back on it it was exactly the right decision. If we asked David Davis and [DExEU perm sec] Olly Robbins now, on top of everything else they’re doing, to also be the people thinking about how we negotiate five, 10, 15 new trade deals, it would simply be beyond the capacity of the senior team."
He added: "It makes perfect sense to have two senior secretaries of state, two different permanent secretaries, and two separate departments doing those two very, very big new challenges. And I don't think anybody in Whitehall seriously questions this now.”
Read the full interview with Sir Jeremy Heywood, featuring his comments on civil service pay, diversity and the reform agenda here