01 June 2018

Brexit has prompted the first expansion of the civil service’s workforce for almost a decade, and billions of pounds of additional spending. But Lewis Lloyd says you would hardly know it, judging by the Government’s latest Single Departmental Plans.

The Single Departmental Plans (SDPs), updated last week, set out departments’ priorities for the next financial year. In the 2017/18 plans, published last December, Brexit was buried. This time they offer a fairer reflection of the impact of Brexit on departments’ work – but not by much.

This is a problem. The Government has been consistently tight-lipped about its management of Brexit – widely recognised as the greatest peacetime challenge ever faced by the civil service. The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) barely responds to Freedom of Information requests, spent months trying to avoid releasing its meagre ‘sectoral analyses’, and has refused to divulge even the names of departments’ Brexit ‘workstreams’.

As timelines for negotiating a deal, passing the necessary legislation and implementing new systems and processes become ever tighter, the SDPs offer an opportunity to reassure us that the Government has a grip on what needs to be done. But the mood music provides little comfort. Instead, most departments continue to deflect attention away from Brexit. This approach risks further undermining public trust.

Departments acknowledge Brexit but the changes are mostly cosmetic

In our analysis (see box below for methodology), we found that references to leaving the EU are marginally more prominent now than they were in December, and departments such as the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have moved up the rankings for being more explicit about the impact of leaving the EU on their work. But many of the changes are open to the charge of being mere window dressing.

Proportion of SDPs focused on Brexit

The new trend towards departments bolting Brexit onto the end of existing objectives is particularly uninspired. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), for instance, no longer plans to simply ‘maximise investment opportunities and bolster UK interests’, as stated in its 2017/18 plan, but do so ‘as we leave the EU’ – adding the Brexit reference to what is otherwise exactly the same wording. The Treasury still hopes to maintain financial stability – but it too now hopes to do this ‘as we leave the EU’. The Department for Work and Pension's (DWP) goal of ensuring ‘work always pays’ has been amended to clarify that it covers both ‘pre- and post-EU exit’.

This indicates awareness of the changed context, at least. But it gives no sense of the nature or scale of that change, or how the department in question is reprioritising to deal with it. That is why we have excluded these tacked-on references from our analysis above.

Brexit still receives cursory treatment from some of the most affected departments

  • BEIS has done a better job than it did in December of setting out its role in the Brexit negotiations. But there is only one, indirect reference to its implementation work, with respect to the creation of an independent nuclear safeguards regime. For the department with the most Brexit workstreams – 72 out of 325 – this barely scratches the surface.
  • The Home Office was the greatest beneficiary of the money allocated in the Chancellor’s Brexit exercise in the spring, with an additional £395 million for 2018/19. Each of its first four objectives – to cut crime, manage emergencies, protect vulnerable people and reduce terrorism – will be affected by Brexit. But work to mitigate this impact is rolled into one action right at the end of the plan. And this action focuses only on agreeing a new security partnership with the EU, with the likely need for new systems and resources wholly overlooked.
  • The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is more implementation-focused than most. But a handful of actions seems insufficient for the department with the third highest number of workstreams (23).
  • HMRC has expanded its Brexit coverage slightly but there is no acknowledgement of the impact of Brexit on taxation policy, and more detail on customs preparations appears in the Treasury’s plan.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) still does not mention leaving the EU at all, despite the department’s 11 Brexit workstreams

Defra continues to lead the way

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is establishing itself as the example to follow. Its expanded first objective details actions across each of the negotiating, legislating and implementing strands of Defra’s Brexit portfolio. Its treatment of the impact of leaving the EU on existing work is also better than other departments’ – references are dotted throughout the plan, with respect to fisheries, food standards and chemicals, for instance.

To an extent, this reflects the fact that Defra is likely to be more affected by Brexit than any other department. But other heavily affected departments should be equally prepared to acknowledge the extent of Brexit’s impact on their work.

Government has missed an opportunity to show it is has a grip on Brexit

Two years ago, Brexit was the big new thing. Over time, new things are, in Whitehall speak, “mainstreamed” into business as usual. At some point, Brexit will no longer be a special project. But it is far too early to operate on the basis of ‘Brexit as usual’, when in reality the work has hardly begun.

The Government has been reluctant to tell public or Parliament much about its plans for Brexit. The SDPs could have been an opportunity to build confidence that the civil service is reprioritising effectively to cope with the challenge. But, yet again, that opportunity has been missed.

Additional analysis by Adela Iacobov.

Further information

Abbreviations for government departments

The SDPs include objectives, sub-objectives and actions. In our analysis of their Brexit content, we looked at the highest level – objectives – and flagged them if they were focused on work required for Brexit. If they weren’t, we moved down to sub-objectives, to judge if they were Brexit-related. If none of those were, we moved on to the actions.

Download the full spreadsheet of SDP objectives, sub-objectives, actions and our Brexit calculations, for May 2018.