Calls for new civil service resources as UK triggers Article 50

By on 03/04/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels, personally hands over a letter from the British government to the European council president, Donald Tusk.

The triggering of Article 50 last week has sparked fresh debate over whether the UK’s civil service has the capabilities to handle the many complexities arising from Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

British prime minister Theresa May began the two-year process of leaving the EU last Wednesday when she sent formal notice to the European Council president, Donald Tusk, of the UK’s intentions.

Aside from the many intractable political pinch points that the Brexit process will throw up, there are also ongoing concerns over the pressures the negotiations and withdrawal will put on UK government departments.

Think tank the Institute for Government has calculated that Brexit could require up to 15 new bills, as well as the so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which will transpose European law into UK law.

Unions representing UK civil servants issued fresh warnings last week that the combination of these legislative pressures, post-Brexit trade negotiations and the burden of taking on tasks currently administered by European institutions may prove too much for already-stretched departments to cope with.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said the civil service was “woefully understaffed and underprepared” for Brexit, a sentiment echoed by FDA union general secretary Dave Penman, who called on the prime minister to “properly resource” the civil service in preparation for the process.

“Civil servants will now be at the heart of delivering new trade relationships, transposing EU laws into British ones and overhauling immigration, customs and agricultural policies currently handled by the EU,” Penman said.

“If the government wants to retain the talented civil servants it already has, as well as attract the new skills required to prepare for a post-Brexit Britain, now is the time to seriously review its approach to departmental spending, workforce planning and civil service pay.”

Meanwhile, the Prospect union published the findings of a survey of members in which only 23% of members who will be involved in negotiating and implementing Brexit believe their organisation has the necessary skills for the task.

“The UK could lose out in negotiations to leave the European Union because of a lack of resources and expertise in Whitehall and beyond,” the union’s deputy general secretary Garry Graham said.

These warnings follow a report published a few days before Article 50 was triggered by the National Audit Office, the UK’s public spending watchdog, highlighting the extent to which Brexit, along with a number of other significant projects, is putting pressure on a civil service machine that has shrunk by over 25% since 2006.

The NAO said government plans to address gaps in the civil service are not keeping pace with the growth of the challenges – such as Brexit – it faces.

In a statement to Global Government Forum from the Cabinet Office, cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, said: “The UK is well placed to deal with the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities, that lie ahead as we prepare for Brexit.

“We are focused on delivering this Government’s commitment to leave the EU and get the very best deal for the UK. We are equipping ourselves with the right people and the right skills across government to make this happen.

“At the same time, the Civil Service is also working hard to make sure that all the priorities of the government are being delivered.”

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See also:

Report: ‘Deluded’ UK cannot afford to be smug on Brexit

New European Parliament president sets conciliatory tone on Brexit

May’s hard Brexit: starting position or ultimate goal?

Ripples around the world: Brexit’s implications for Europe and beyond

Responding to the Brexit challenge: a round table debate



About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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