Two months before the UK’s scheduled departure from the European Union, British politics continues to be torn apart by Brexit. Government preparations for the UK’s exit have been impeded by political division. Despite the expansion of the civil service during 2018, the day-to-day work of government – from managing major projects to delivering public services – has inevitably been hindered by the all-consuming political focus on Brexit.
The Government’s historic parliamentary defeat by 230 votes on the deal to leave the EU means the nature of the UK’s departure is still unclear. If nothing is agreed before 29 March 2019, the UK will leave without a deal – something the Government is not prepared for. Even with some form of agreement, it will be a significant challenge.
Implementing Brexit has been described by one of the UK’s top public servants as “the biggest, most challenging peacetime task the civil service has faced”.
This challenge is exacerbated by the tight deadlines of this task. It is not yet clear whether the UK will have the ‘luxury’ of the 21-month transition period envisaged in the Withdrawal Agreement when it leaves the EU in March 2019. Even if it does, the time available will be significantly shorter than the time government spent on delivering other major programmes such as automatic enrolment for pensions or the 2012 Olympic Games. A recent Institute for Government report argued that “the Prime Minister must accept that everything will not be ready for December 2020”. If the UK leaves without a deal, deadlines for implementing new arrangements would be tighter still. The Government could only expect to have ‘a fraction’ of the necessary processes and systems in place – such as ensuring that the UK complies with international law – by Exit Day.
The Government’s task has been made even harder by its lack of a majority in the House of Commons following the 2017 General Election. A lack of a majority even in normal political times makes it more difficult to pass major legislation; the divisions over Brexit within the Government, between the Government and the Democratic Unionist Party (with whose support the Conservatives have been governing), within the Conservative Party beyond Westminster and within the Opposition have complicated the task of passing a legislative programme even further.
The Government set aside many of the policy ideas in its 2017 manifesto, such as new grammar schools and reforms to adult social care funding, because of the election result and to concentrate its energies and political capital on Brexit-related legislation. But a lot of the legislation required for the UK to be ready for Brexit has yet to be passed. Progress has been much slower than expected, as the Government sought to compromise and make deals to ensure safe passage and avoid defeats (not always successfully). The Government has identified 12 bills that need to pass in this parliamentary session to be ready for Brexit; by the end of December 2018, only five of those bills had made it through Parliament. This, and the need to lay hundreds of pieces of secondary legislation, means that Government faces a real challenge to prepare the UK statute book for Brexit without a legislative rush – especially if there is still a possibility that the UK may leave with no deal.
Another serious political complication has been the unprecedented level of ministerial resignations – most of them over policy issues, and most of those over Brexit. Ministerial turnover can disrupt the passage of legislation, the delivery of policies and the conduct of government, as ministers get to grips with new briefs and civil servants adapt to new styles and priorities.
Between the 2017 General Election and 1 January 2019, 21 ministers resigned, eight of them Cabinet ministers. Of those 21, 14 resigned over policy or political differences, 12 of them over Brexit. In November 2018, four ministers resigned on the same day, including two from the Cabinet and two from the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) – a post-1979 record. Brexit has clearly reduced government’s ability to think about and pursue other policies, and has had consequences for the civil service as well as politicians. Almost a third of civil servants in the Treasury are reported to be working on Brexit at the expense of everything else. In December 2018, it was reported that 600 civil servants at the Department for International Development (DfID) might be redeployed elsewhere in Whitehall, and in January 2019 that up to 4,000 civil servants from five departments may move to new roles to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
Nonetheless, during 2018 the civil service began preparing for the challenges ahead. This is most obvious in rising civil service staff numbers, which have grown every since the EU referendum in 2016 – from a post-war low of 384,260 in June 2016 to 404,160 in September 2018. Among the departments with the biggest increases in headcount since the referendum are those most affected by Brexit, such as the Department for International Trade (DIT), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). In total these new recruits represent the equivalent of reversing one in every five of the jobs cut since 2010, after which the civil service reduced headcount through redundancies and hiring freezes.
This recruitment drive is also reshaping the civil service. Its staff are becoming younger on average (although two out of every five civil servants are aged 50 or older). Overall, they are more senior (staff cuts continue only at the most junior levels) and more London-based, while the percentage of senior civil servants who are women is at its highest-ever level.
Some of the challenges that Brexit has distracted the civil service from include its own operation. The civil service has had to deal with a change of Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, following the death of Lord (Jeremy) Heywood.
The civil service continues to strengthen and professionalise key activities (such as commercial skills and project delivery) across the whole of government, allowing expertise to be shared across departments and ensuring that it has the specialist skills it needs. However, there is still work to be done, for example in ensuring that heads of these specialist functions are represented at the very top of the civil service, on the Civil Service Board. Furthermore, excessive staff turnover remains a problem – it is expensive, costing Whitehall between £36 million and £74 million each year, and disruptive, as knowledge and expertise are lost. In the past year, some departments – including the Treasury – lost two in every five of their civil servants either to other departments or to roles outside the civil service.
Excessive turnover has also been disruptive at the ministerial level. Reshuffles and the high number of resignations mean that more than half of Cabinet ministers and half of all ministers only came into their current role in 2018. This includes some posts dealing with serious public service challenges: in January 2018, David Gauke became the sixth Justice Secretary since 2010, at a time when the prison service is under great strain, while in November 2018, Amber Rudd became the fifth Work and Pensions Secretary since 2016, inheriting Universal Credit and its controversies.
Since the 2015 Spending Review, several public services have required emergency cash injections as they have struggled to meet rising demand (such as for health care) or to absorb large spending cuts (such as in prisons). The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that the 2019 Spending Review will herald the end of almost a decade of austerity. But with much of the planned increase in departmental spending already earmarked for the National Health Service, and with some other budgets (such as for defence and international aid) also protected, the budgets of unprotected departments will be squeezed further.
Meanwhile, more and more public services are being delivered digitally. The number has risen quickly, from 25 ‘exemplar’ projects in the early days of the Government Digital Service (GDS) under the Coalition Government, to nearly 800 services now, allowing citizens to renew driving licences or passports and sign up for flood alerts online. However, some of the Government’s more ambitious digital plans are falling behind. Verify – the Government’s secure new way for citizens to prove their identity online, improving access to digital services – is not expected to reach its target of 25 million registered users by 2025 (it currently has just over three million users). And the Government has not fulfilled key pledges in the Government Transformation Strategy, such as the appointment of a chief data officer to lead on the better use of data.
As well as running public services and managing other business as usual, government departments are currently delivering more than 130 major projects, such as High- speed Rail, Universal Credit and improvements to military capability. Despite recent efforts to improve project delivery in government, the risk of major projects not being delivered on time and within budget appears to be growing. Less than a fifth of major projects are currently rated green (successful delivery is likely) or amber/green (successful delivery is probable), compared with almost a half in 2013. Meanwhile, successful delivery appears ‘in doubt’ or ‘unachievable’ for 36% of major projects, double the percentage five years ago.
Brexit has understandably captured a lot of public attention, political focus and civil- service time in recent months. With the UK’s path to Brexit still uncertain, that will continue. But government still has public services to run, major projects to deliver, legislation to pass, messages to communicate and many other tasks to take care of, whatever the outcome. It will be more able to do so once the direction of Brexit is agreed.