21 January 2019

Brexit has gone from being a limiting factor on the Government’s domestic policy agenda, to the limiting factor. As civil servants start switching over to no deal preparations in increasing numbers, Emily Andrews lists some of the key policy areas which are at risk of being delayed, deprioritised, or simply ignored.

Over the last 18 months, domestic policy delays have been mounting up – partially, but not entirely, because of Brexit. Political bandwidth – particularly in Number 10 – has been heavily taxed by EU exit negotiations and preparations, but the Prime Minister has also lacked the parliamentary majority, and the authority within Cabinet, to push through any kind of challenging domestic reform on issues like social care. 

Increasingly, however, Brexit is becoming the major limiting factor. The Prime Minister and Cabinet have little time left to find a consensus on their next steps. Deal or no deal, there is still a lot of Brexit-related legislation to pass.

Civil service capacity is now a key limitation on any government work which is not directly (and urgently) Brexit-related. Thousands of civil servants were hired to manage Brexit but, as our recent report on civil service turnover shows, many more positions were filled with transfers from other departments. As no deal preparations ramp up, this trend is becoming ever more widespread – as The Times reported last week, 4,000 civil servants are now being moved from their day jobs.

The consequences of this will not be clear for some time – the Government is not making clear what work those civil servants are moving from. But it is becoming increasingly clear that many issues of national importance are at risk of being deprioritised, abandoned or simply ignored.

What has actually been delayed?

The two flagship domestic policy publications scheduled for 2018 - the social care green paper and the NHS reform plan – were both pushed into the new year. The NHS plan is now out, but the social care green paper – originally due in October 2017 – is nowhere to be seen. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has promised it will be out ‘soon’, but it seems unlikely that a party heavily reliant on older voters will begin consulting on potentially taxing their wealth at a time of such political uncertainty. Meanwhile, local authorities – who manage the delivery of social care – face real uncertainty about the future of their funding and finances overall.

Domestic abuse was heralded as one of Theresa May’s big priorities when she became PM – and today, seven months after the end of the public consultation, a draft bill is being published. That is a step forward, but it could still be some time before it actually makes its way into legislation: the draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill has still not been introduced to Parliament, over two years after it was published. Similarly, the silence following the consultation on integrated communities, and the absence of a promised internet safety white paper suggests that many of this Government’s key priorities have fallen away.

Brexit may also be crowding out other matters of international diplomacy. In previous times, the news that Hitachi have officially cancelled plans to build a new nuclear power plant in Wales would have seen the Government prioritising efforts to salvage the project. However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe claims that Theresa May did not mention the issue in their meetings last week.

What is at risk?

Housing managed to remain high on the political agenda over the last year – but we will have to wait and see how quickly the social housing consultation will turn into concrete policy proposals. We are also expecting the already-controversial Augar review of Higher Education funding later this year – but will the Government be ready to respond?

One department particularly affected by stretched civil service capacity is HM Revenue and Customs. Earlier this year, Permanent Secretary Jon Thompson publicly announced that 39 projects or reforms were being delayed or paused due to Brexit – including parts of the challenging and controversial Making Tax Digital programme. But mandatory digital VAT record-keeping and filing is still due to begin in April this year, at exactly the time the department may be having to manage a sudden no deal scenario.

Our Performance Tracker, produced with CIPFA, outlines the many issues which are building up in public services – such as staff vacancies, and long waits for services – as the Government’s strategies for saving money fail to keep up with rising demand. The 2019 Spending Review should be the big opportunity to tackle some of those issues. But a multi-year budgeting exercise that sets spending plans and priorities for departments for the next three to five years is looking less and less likely. Meanwhile, necessary reforms, such as a teacher recruitment and retention strategy, are nowhere to be seen.

Time is running out – not just for Brexit

This is just a snapshot of the cancellations, delays and ‘at risk’ policies. I’m keeping a running list, and would welcome any other examples that readers know of.

Brexit may be the Prime Minister’s most pressing challenge, but it is not the only one. As the Brexit clock runs down, time is running out to fix many fundamental domestic problems. And fixing them will be just as important for creating a united, successful post-Brexit Britain as finalising a Brexit deal.

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