Brexit and beyond: the challenge for Whitehall

30 Jan 17

Unless the government is clear about planning, negotiating and spending priorities around Brexit, there is a risk the UK will not be prepared for complex talks and life after leaving the EU

The civil service is at its smallest since the Second World War and 20% smaller than it was in 2010. But, with Brexit, it is facing some of the biggest and most complex tasks in its history.

Research by the Institute for Government late last year looked at how Whitehall had responded in the first few months following the vote to leave the EU. While preparations are under way, more work is needed if the transition out of the EU is to be a smooth one.

First, departments need more information about what they are required to do and when. While the government’s initial response was quick, with new departments and teams set up to prepare for negotiations, some do not have a clear sense of what “ready for article 50” looks like, which issues need to be decided and which can be dealt with once the article 50 talks are complete. More defined processes and timelines would help departments prioritise and manage their contributions.

Second, the government needs to decide how negotiations will be managed, ensuring they draw on expertise from the whole of Whitehall. Looking at how the EU and other places have managed international trade negotiations show there are several models. It is likely that negotiations will be led by a small team of senior negotiators, but how departmental expertise will be harnessed is yet to be decided. Departments could work directly with negotiators, or could second their policy experts into a special unit to provide information and analysis to the negotiating team. It is up to the government to decide which model it uses, but a decision is needed so departments can prepare and time is not wasted setting up teams or channels of communication during negotiations.

Third, all departments need to be planning for “day one” after Brexit. While much of Whitehall’s focus has been on negotiating, planning must extend to life outside the EU. Some post-Brexit planning is under way – the Great Repeal Bill, for example, will carry over EU regulation and provide legal continuity. But the UK needs to have other systems and policies in place when it leaves. The UK will need to implement a system to manage immigration and border control; it may need also a new customs regime (assuming we leave the customs union) and new regulatory bodies to replace EU bodies such as the European Medicines Agency. Planning for and implementing these will take time so departments should start planning now.

Finally, planning requires time and money but departments don’t have enough of either. With reduced headcount, dwindling budgets and more cuts to come, Whitehall’s limited resources have been concentrated on pre-referendum policy commitments. Departments cannot carry out the work required for Brexit while meeting these demands. Some additional resources have been provided: the chancellor’s Autumn Statement earmarked up to £412m for the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Department for International Trade and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to support Brexit-related work. However, there are no extra resources to support other departments with Brexit preparations. If the government wants to work within current settlements, departments must be able to reprioritise their limited resources to deal with Brexit. Theresa May has given some indication of her objectives for Brexit, this must now be translated into a steer for departments on priorities and whether existing plans can be trimmed or delayed.

Whitehall has adapted quickly to the pressure of preparing for Brexit but more needs to be done to ensure success. Without clarity on planning, negotiating or how resources are to be prioritised, there is a risk that the UK is not fully prepared for talks or, more importantly, for life outside the EU.


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