Whitehall urged to begin work on Brexit projects from this month

IfG says realism is needed on the scale of the EU divorce challenge

By Richard Johnstone

13 Mar 2017

The civil service must prepare for life outside the European Union from the moment Theresa May triggers Article 50 this month – and ministers must indicate what policies can be dropped to free up capacity, the Institute for Government has said.

In an analysis looking at the impact of the two-year exit process, which prime minister Theresa May has pledged will begin before the end of March, the IfG said this would trigger a new stage in cross-government preparation. 

Both managing the negotiations and implementing the outcome will place additional strain on government at a time when the civil service is the smallest since the Second World War, and an understanding of these challenges must inform the UK’s negotiating position, the think tank stated.

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The civil service will need to provide analysis and coordination as the talks proceed, as well as preparing post-Brexit systems in areas from immigration and customs to regulation, the report highlighted. It must therefore be made clear to departments what policies areas can be delayed or even abandoned to maintain capacity for both Brexit and normal government business.

Jill Rutter, programme director at IfG, said pressure on the civil service will intensify from the moment the Article 50 is triggered, as the government’s focus will quickly move to laying the foundations for life outside the EU. 

“With limited time and capacity, the pressure on ministers and the civil servants supporting them will increase,” Rutter stated. “Successfully delivering Brexit in this context will require agility, leadership and realism.”

The review highlighted that it inevitable that the spending plans of departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office would have to be altered within the current spending review period to prepare for leaving the EU.

Dedicated time and resources is given to major projects needed following exit, such as a computer system capable of registering EU citizens in the UK, or enforcing trade tariffs. Such contingency planning is needed to manage the risk of a Brexit cliff edge, with the UK being forced to abandon EU systems on day one outside the bloc.

Without such preparation, May could also not reasonably threaten to walk away from a bad deal, as government plans would be dependent on transitional arrangements.

Anand Menon, the director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, said the pressure of Brexit will be felt right across government and delivering it alongside existing commitments will test capacity to the limit. 

“The civil service has many of the core skills required to do the task but effectively managing competing priorities and limited resources will require strong leadership,” he added.

The review highlighted a number of policy markers that would provide details on the government’s key aims in the negotiation. Areas to look out for include whether there were plan for legislative changes upon exit, beyond the Great Repeal Bill that will transpose EU law into UK statute, and if spending was boosted in areas where the ‘cliff edge' is greatest.

"How long the government planned to keep the Department for Exiting the European Union open will also provide a clue in how long any implementation phase for a deal could take. Last week’s Budget confirmed plans for DExEU funding to 2019-20, although secretary of state David Davis had previously said it would only be in place for two years.

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