What Brexit has meant for the UK civil service so far?

By on 27/07/2016 | Updated on 03/08/2016

While Britain’s vote to leave the EU has had no immediate impact on Europeans living in the UK or Britons living in other EU nations, the referendum result has led to significant changes to the structure of government already: David Cameron stepped down as prime minister and he was swiftly replaced by Theresa May who kicked off her term earlier this month by creating a new department, abolishing another and announcing sweeping changes to a further two.

Here is a summary of the main changes to the machinery of government May announced to equip Britain’s civil service to “deliver on Brexit”:

A new Brexit department

The most significant change has been the creation of the new Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU), which is being morphed out of the previous Cabinet Office Brexit unit. The unit was hastily put together after the referendum vote last month, with staff from the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, and the Foreign office. Its most senior civil servant Olly Robbins is now DEEU permanent secretary. He is working with new Brexit minister David Davis, a Eurosceptic rightwinger, who replaced Oliver Letwin, a minister close to Cameron who was sacked from the Cabinet in May’s reshuffle. Though it is a self-contained new ministry, which is currently made up of around 40 civil servants, it is answerable directly to May.

The new ministry, May said in a written statement to parliament, has “responsibility for overseeing preparations for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and conducting these withdrawal negotiations in support of the prime minister […] and lead work to establish the future relationship between the UK and EU.” It “will be formed by combining staff from the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit, the Europe Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU; and in time will take on staff from other government departments as is needed.” The department “will assume the previous responsibilities of the Cabinet Office in respect of the co-ordination of collective European business and direct support to the prime minister on European affairs” and “also be responsible for overseeing associated parliamentary activity including any legislation required,” she said.

Asked how many officials of which pay grade will work in DEEU by parliamentarian Andy Slaughter, Brexit minister Davis answered: “The new Department will sit at the heart of government and be staffed by the best and brightest from across the civil service” bringing together “officials and policy expertise from across the Cabinet Office, Treasury, Foreign Office, Business Department and the wider civil service.” Facing questions about the new ministry again on Sky News, Davis finally revealed that it would “grow to a couple of hundred people” and that “the most brilliant people in Whitehall [are] applying to work at DEEU.”

The merger of the energy and business department

May also abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS), will absorb all of DECC’s responsibilities and part of BIS’s functions, such as business, industrial strategy and the science base. BIS’s responsibility for higher and further education – including all adult skills and apprenticeship policy – will be transferred to the Department for Education. DBEIS will be responsible for “business and enterprise; science and innovation; a reliable and resilient energy system; energy bills; international climate change and cost-effective carbon reduction at home; and UK energy legacy,” May told Parliament.

The new international trade department

A more complex task will be faced by the newly created Department for International Trade (DIT), which will be responsible for promoting British trade across the world and negotiating new trade deals with non-EU countries. It will be, “a specialised body with significant new trade negotiating capacity” and also be “be responsible for UK export finance.”

BIS permanent secretary Martin Donnelly was appointed joint permanent secretary for the DBEIS and acting permanent secretary at the DIT earlier this month, but this week, DBEIS updated its website stating Donnelly as joint permanent secretary along with Alex Chisholm who was recently appointed to lead DECC.

The government has previously put the number of experienced international trade negotiators across the civil service at 20. Asked how many trade specialists are currently employed by DIT, minister of state Greg Hands told Parliament that “there are currently in excess of 50 civil servants in my department primarily working on trade policy.” Ministers also told Parliament that it was too early to say how many civil servants would eventually be employed by DIT. Asked if the government was planning to establish a scheme to retrain people with experience of high level intergovernmental and global institutional practice as trade negotiators, Lord Price yesterday said that the department has “begun a process to recruit and train staff to work on the UK’s trade policy” and would “adapt the resource devoted to trade policy in line with future demands.”

The government previously said it was turning to the private sector, retired civil servants and foreign governments to help it boost the number of experts on global trade negotiations. And earlier this month, the parliamentary select committee on public administration urged the government to try winning back trade negotiators from the European Commission by offering them “more than competitive” salaries.

There were around 1,000 UK nationals working for the EC, it said, adding that the government should make “particularly strenuous efforts” to lure them back focussing especially on those with experience in financial services and trade, because “their knowledge of European institutions will be crucial to providing the UK with the best possible basis with which to go into withdrawal and trade negotiations.”

The UK hasn’t had its own team of trade negotiators since it joined the European common market in 1973. For years, the EC has negotiated world trade on behalf of all member states, and today, many of Britain’s most experienced experts work in Brussels for the Commission which employs hundreds of trade negotiators. However, any effort by the UK government to convince EC negotiators to return to the British civil service could be exacerbated by officials’ unwillingness to unravel Britain’s relations with the EU – something they have devoted their whole careers to developing.

A new minister for the civil service

May also appointed Ben Gummer as new minister for the Cabinet Office whose responsibilities include public sector efficiency and reform; general civil service issues; reducing red tape; cyber security; government transparency and coordinating constitutional reform.

He took office on 14 July, just a year after his predecessor Matt Hancock was appointed by Cameron.

Gummer, who represents Ipswich in Suffolk, has previously worked as parliamentary advisor to Lord Feldman; parliamentary private secretary to the minister of state for International development; parliamentary private secretary to the secretary of state for education; and parliamentary under secretary of state for quality at Department of Health from May 2015 to July 2016. Educated at Tonbridge School in Kent, he went on to study history at Cambridge University, after which he ran a small engineering firm before becoming managing director of a consultancy business. He is an associate governor of Ravenswood Primary School, Patron of Home Start South Suffolk and a trustee of the Foundation Years Trust.

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See also:

Finding the exit: the future of UK-EU relations

Brexit minister Oliver Letwin leaves government after being branded ‘completely unsuitable’ for the job

Brexit: UK government should try to win back officials from European Commission by offering ‘more than competitive pay’, committee says

A guide to Brexit, part 1: how Britain voted to leave the EU

A guide to Brexit, part 2: What’s the process for negotiating a British exit from the EU?

A guide to Brexit, part 3: Who’ll run the negotiations?

A guide to Brexit, part 4: Is Britain’s departure from the EU inevitable?

A guide to Brexit, part 5: What is the likely outcome of Brexit?

Is the EU referendum result a wake-up call for employers?

Olly Robbins appointed head of government’s new Brexit unit

Oliver Letwin ‘completely unsuitable’ to lead Brexit unit, says former cabinet secretary

Brexit will be ‘largest legal, legislative and bureaucratic project in British history’, says former UK Treasury Solicitor

Clash over civil service advice in EU referendum

Bank of England’s independence under threat in EU referendum row

EU issues Poland with official warning over constitutional court changes

Sir Paul Jenkins, former UK Treasury Solicitor: EU Referendum interview

Managing the EU Migration Crisis

European Parliament orders Poland’s government to reverse changes to country’s top court

A family reunification dilemma for the EU

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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