Brexit creating ‘culture of extraordinary secrecy’ in Whitehall

By on 12/06/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Clouds over Whitehall: excessive secrecy and weak collaboration threaten the UK’s preparations for Brexit.

Information on planning for the UK’s future outside the EU is not being shared between government departments, while businesses and Parliament are being kept in the dark, a respected think tank has found.

In a report published on Sunday, the Institute for Government (IfG) said that “the greatest challenge in delivering Brexit now stems from the inability of a split Cabinet to make critical decisions”.

“Inordinate levels of secrecy” are being driven by political tensions, it found. Key documents, even those related to essential planning, are being classified higher than is necessary and “locked away in a few rooms around Whitehall”, according to interviews the authors carried out with senior civil servants across government departments and public bodies involved in preparations.

This secrecy is hampering co-ordination across departments, devolved administrations and public bodies. Conflicting ministerial preferences, poor information flow and the continued deferral of critical decisions on the UK’s preferred future relationship are hindering preparations for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, scheduled for 29 March 2019, the report says.

The report also finds that Whitehall is struggling to recruit and retain civil servants to carry out work related to Brexit; departments are working to inconsistent assumptions; and businesses are not being consulted effectively.

Gear change at 100mph

Joe Owen, associate director at the IfG, said that in the past two years thousands of new staff have “gone from nought to a hundred miles an hour” tackling the thorny issues associated with Brexit.

“But the toxic interplay between politics and planning poses a major risk to preparations. With negotiations turning to the future relationship, and the spectre of no deal hovering just months away, Whitehall needs to change gear.

“Internal and external secrecy are not compatible with the task ahead. Ministers must change tack and prioritise the flow of information over domestic political sensitivities,” he said.

Five’s a charm

The IFG has recommended five actions Whitehall should take to get back on track with delivering Brexit:

  • the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and the Cabinet Office should set out how they plan to run formal negotiations with the EU after March 2019 and how the rest of Whitehall will be involved;
  • DExEU, the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade should explain how the government plans to consult businesses and other stakeholders during negotiations;
  • departments must cut back on existing work that is not related to leaving the EU;
  • DExEU must give its staff as much certainty as possible about the future of the department, in order to reduce staff turnover. Permanent contracts should be given to those who will have a role beyond 29 March 2019;
  • a minister and official should be put in charge of “Brexit readiness”, so that the government focuses as closely on preparedness for Brexist as on the negotiations. The IfG suggests David Lidington, minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and John Manzoni, permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office and chief executive of the civil service, for these roles.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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