UK union chief warns that civil servants lack resources to tackle Brexit

By on 14/05/2017
Dave Penman, general secretary, FDA Union (Image courtesy FDA Union).

The head of Britain’s union for senior public sector managers called last week for the UK’s next government to urgently hold a new spending round, giving civil servants the resources required to handle Brexit negotiations and plan for a post-EU future. And he criticised the government for failing to defend civil service impartiality and objectivity after senior Tories attacked a key official managing the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA Union, told the union’s annual conference on Thursday that “if Brexit is such a fundamental challenge to our country that we’ve seen the resignation of a prime minister, the creation of two new government departments and the calling of a general election after only two years, then it also requires a new funding settlement for the civil service.

“A refusal to do so by any incoming government threatens not only the success of our negotiated exit, but also our ability to cope with the consequences that will follow. A new spending round must be a priority for any incoming government.”

PM Theresa May has called a general election for 8 June, and is widely expected to win an increased majority. May has dismissed warnings by the Institute for Government over gaps in the civil service’s capacity to deliver Brexit, saying that she wasn’t “surprised when former civil servants suggest we need to employ more civil servants.”

The National Audit Office has also raised concerns over resourcing for Brexit, as have former heads of the civil service lords O’Donnell and Kerslake. May’s comment, said Penman, “adds insult to injury” and is “astonishing… in the context of the cuts that have already been made to the civil service and are continuing under current plans to 2020.”

Those cuts, said the FDA chief, are reducing some departments’ administrative budgets by close to 50% over the decade; the civil service has already lost 26% of its total workforce since 2007.

“And, of course, our exit from the European Union is… probably the single biggest challenge any government has faced in peacetime,” he commented. The environment department, he said, will receive 39% less funding in 2019 than in 2010 – losing 300 of its 7000 staff this year alone. Yet around a quarter of all EU legislation – some 1200 laws, affecting 80% of the department’s work – will need to be reviewed, and it must develop a replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy’s vast system of farming and countryside management subsidies.

On the Article 50 and trade talks that will shape the UK’s exit, Penman said that “it will be the hard and complex work of civil servants that will determine the outcome of these negotiations – and if they are to be a success, then Britain needs a strong civil service.”

Penman also criticised the government and former Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith over attacks on Sir Ivan Rogers. The UK’s ambassador to the EU quit after leaks emerged revealing he’d warned the government that concluding a free trade deal with the EU could take a decade – a more pessimistic position than the government’s line.

“You don’t get a strong civil service by sending out former ministers to tramp round the TV studios trashing the reputation of civil servants for having the audacity to speak truth unto power, whilst ministers stay silent, refusing to voice their support and giving those attacks their tacit approval,” said Penman.

Speaking later in a conference debate, he again criticised Duncan Smith’s calls for “more enthusiastic cheerleaders for Brexit to be appointed in [Rogers’] place.” Government ministers, he added, “went into hiding as they struggled to work out a coherent response to Sir Ivan’s resignation, and despite numerous requests from the press they refused to defend Sir Ivan’s reputation.”

“We were the only voice defending the impartiality and integrity of the civil service,” said Penman.

Iain Duncan Smith was the work and pensions secretary from 2010 to 2016, during which his flagship Universal Credit benefits reforms suffered repeated delays, reversals and cost overruns.

Investigations into the Universal Credit scheme – including a report by the Institute for Government and the National Audit Office – have found that the programme suffered from serious flaws including weak implementation planning, system overload, a ‘good news’ culture, over-ambitious innovation and scheduling, poor IT and programme management, inadequate financial control, excessive turnover in key roles, tensions with the Treasury and Cabinet Office, and the failure to specify a ‘target operating model’.

Duncan Smith has blamed civil servants for the debacle, claiming that he “lost faith in the ability of civil servants to be able to manage this programme.”

On Friday, Penman again stepped in to defend a senior official against criticisms from inside government, when a “Whitehall source” attacked outgoing Department for International Development permanent secretary Mark Lowcock.

The source told the Daily Mail that Lowcock, who is leaving to become the UN’s under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has “always been good at pursuing his own agenda”, and that his exit will “allow a breath of fresh air” into the department.

“Once again we are witness to the unedifying spectacle of committed public servants being undermined and attacked through ‘anonymous’ sources close to ministers,” said Penman. “All too often this particular brand of political cowardice rears its ugly head as ministers feel the pressure to look for a convenient scapegoat.”

“Instead of preaching about leadership, it’s time some politicians demonstrated it and publicly defended their staff from these unwarranted, vicious attacks.”

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See also:

Leading Brexit campaigner says UK can remain open to immigrant labour

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

UK government allocates over £400m to key Brexit departments

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

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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