UK needs ‘30,000 extra civil servants’ for Brexit, says leaked memo

By on 15/11/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
British Prime Minister Theresa May

The UK civil service is unable to cope with its 500 ongoing Brexit-related projects and may need to hire an additional 30,000 civil servants, according to a leaked memo.

The memo, leaked to The Times newspaper and widely reported in other national media today, suggests Whitehall departments are already struggling to deal with the workload from Brexit and will need to hire new staff.

Divisions within the Cabinet mean there is still no common government Brexit strategy, says the memo, and getting to that point could take another six months. It is critical of PM Theresa May’s leadership style – in particular, her preference for “drawing in decisions and details to settle matters herself”.  And it says that “the Government’s priority remains its political survival, not the economy”.

It goes on to say that the government may need to hire an additional 30,000 officials to see through the Brexit negotiations and handle the subsequent workload in individual departments.

Departments have been working on their own plans for how to handle Brexit, but the memo says “this falls considerably short of having a ‘government plan for Brexit’ because it has no prioritisation and no link to the overall negotiation strategy.”

Progress on developing an overall negotiating strategy, meanwhile, appears paralysed by what the memo calls a split between the “three Brexiteers” put in the lead on Brexit matters, and the chancellor and business secretary on the other. The memo says that “major players” in industry are expected to “point a gun at the government’s head” after ministers told carmaker Nissan that it wouldn’t be disadvantaged by Brexit. Nissan subsequently committed to retaining its huge carmaking operation in the North-East of England, and other corporates are likely to seek similar assurances.

The memo suggests that “senior ranks in the civil service will feel compelled to present potential high level plan(s) to avoid further drift,” but notes that “no common strategy has emerged” in discussions between permanent secretaries.

The source of the memo is unclear, but The Times reports that it was prepared for the Cabinet Office by a consultant and dated 7 November.

Speaking on BBC radio this morning, UK transport secretary Chris Grayling insisted the document was “not a government report” and rejected its claims.

“My own experience is very different to that. I sit on the cabinet committee that is preparing plans for the Brexit negotiations; I have seen a process on that committee that is complex but by no means the challenge that is set out in today’s newspaper story,” he said.

Pressed on what numbers of new officials the cabinet committee had been discussing to see through the Brexit process, Grayling was asked whether it would in the “tens of thousands”.

“I’ve not seen anything to suggest that’s the case. We’ve certainly got people in my department, people in other departments working with the Brexit department; the Brexit department has recruited new people to work on this. But I don’t know what 30,000 people would do in this process,” he responded.

Yet the ability of the UK civil service to cope with the challenges of negotiating and delivering Brexit is coming under fresh scrutiny.

At the end of last week MPs on the parliamentary public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC) announced that the scope of an existing inquiry into the effectiveness of the civil service will be widened to consider the impact of the UK leaving the EU.

The committee said in a statement that the UK’s decision to leave the EU has “significant implications” for the civil service, which will now face “new challenges and a host of new tasks” ranging from the formulation of new trade policy to overseeing the return of powers from the EU.

“These challenges make it all the more important that the civil service is clear about its mission and role, and that it understands the principles on which it is based and the institutional framework within which it operates. They also mean that it is essential that issues affecting the civil service effectiveness and capabilities are addressed,” the committee added.

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See also:

Court ruling casts doubt on UK Brexit timetable

Bank of England governor to see through Brexit negotiations

Interim Brexit deal with EU ‘inevitable’ for UK, says former Foreign Office chief

John Kingman, champion of HM Treasury’s supply-side activism, warns of Brexit threat

Gibraltar seeking bespoke Brexit deal, says chief minister

Why the British PM is pursuing a Brexit she doesn’t believe in: Analysis

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Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government: Exclusive Interview

Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, UK: Exclusive Interview

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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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