1.DExEU has not been quick enough to move departments beyond planning for Brexit and on to getting things done. DExEU has identified 313 areas of work, or work streams, that departments need to complete as a consequence of the UK leaving the EU. It has focused on coordinating the planning effort across government departments and ensuring that departments’ plans for these work streams are “up to scratch”. DExEU claims to be confident that it has now identified the things that need to be done. However, we are concerned that DExEU has been too slow to turn its attention to how departments will put those plans into practice and that the plans may not be sufficiently developed to enable implementation to start quickly. We are told that departments will add more detail to their plans, but that “there is a long road to go in turning some of those plans into reality on the ground”. Departments will not be able to identify the people and skills they need until plans are developed. DExEU and the Cabinet Office acknowledge that the pace of this work needs to be ramped up.
Recommendation: Government should provide us with a formal update, no later than 1 June 2018, on progress made with implementation and with recruiting the necessary skills.
2.Departments have still not faced up to the need to re-prioritise existing activity to make space for Brexit. It is clear that prioritisation has not been undertaken with the speed or on the scale needed and we have seen no evidence that departments have stopped any significant work. This is worrying as departments do not have the technical, project or senior leadership capacity for Brexit alongside all their other planned activity. The Cabinet Office says that within the next six months departments will need to have had “serious conversations” about prioritisation. Doing so will require them to put “everything on the table” such as business-as-usual activity, planned business changes and manifesto commitments. Departments are required to set out priorities in their Single Departmental Plans, but the 2017–18 plans were not published until December 2017, almost nine months after the start of the year to which they relate, and made no reference to what will be stopped or de-prioritised as a result of Brexit.
Recommendation: By March 2018, departments should re-visit their existing commitments to test their realism against likely capacity and resources. Departments should demonstrate in their published Single Departmental Plans, no later than April 2018, how they have resourced the new priorities, including evidence of what has been de-prioritised as a result .
3.DExEU and the Cabinet Office do not have a credible plan in place to secure quickly the people and skills needed to support Brexit. The civil service faces long-standing capability challenges and projects too often go ahead without departments having the right skills in place. Urgent action is needed to ensure this pattern is not repeated for Brexit. There is a particularly critical need for project management, technical and digital skills. Departments will be competing for these skills against private sector organisations also preparing for Brexit. While the Cabinet Office has identified possible recruitment channels for some specialisms, it has not developed a thorough plan for how departments will access the skills needed. We are told that the resources needed will be built up over the course of the next 12 months, very close to when the UK exits the EU.
Recommendation: The Cabinet Office, working with departments, needs to act urgently and put into practice credible plans to identify, recruit and get in place people with the skills needed, and in the numbers required, to enable progress of Brexit-related activities against critical milestones.
4.Unclear accountabilities risk undermining the speedy decision-making, resolution of problems and swift progress required to support Brexit. As our predecessors on this Committee found repeatedly in the past, confusion over who is responsible for what hinders progress. It risks things falling through the gaps and causes delays in decision-making. DExEU is responsible for the overarching strategy for Brexit. A separate unit, based in the Cabinet Office, is responsible for management of government’s business, including Brexit. Individual departments are responsible for their own work streams but need to work effectively with other departments and a large number of other stakeholders, including the devolved administrations and local government. At official level, a cross-government board for Brexit considers issues across departments and is underpinned by numerous boards and working groups, forming a potentially unwieldy and overly-complicated bureaucracy that may not be able to cut through issues and make quick decisions when necessary. No-one in the civil service is clearly responsible for making sure the arrangements overall are fit-for-purpose for Brexit.
Recommendation: Government should review, and streamline, the current complex structure of official-level committees to ensure decision-making can take place at the pace needed to support Brexit. DExEU and the Cabinet should report back on the results of this review by April 2018. This statement should also identify the individual responsible for making sure the overall arrangements for supporting the activity needed for Brexit operate quickly and effectively.
5.The paucity of information in the public domain about what departments are doing to support Brexit is undermining scrutiny of progress . Of the 300 plus Brexit ‘work streams’ across government, DExEU considers that around half are top priority and that about 20 of those need to move more quickly. Parliament has no information on what these 20 projects are, how DExEU is monitoring risks, or when projects are expected to be implemented by. The Cabinet Office expects that government will be in a “satisfactory” position by March 2019 but has not set out what this means or how progress will be communicated. We recognise that there will be some sensitivities regarding what should be put in the public domain while negotiations with the EU are ongoing. But this must not be used as an excuse for keeping the public and Parliament in the dark. There is clearly information on the nature of and progress with work streams which can safely be published to aid transparency and accountability. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority is considering a “special assurance regime” for Brexit projects, but it is not clear what this will look like or the level of transparency it will provide Parliament. Similarly, the Treasury expects that existing processes will be used to allocate funding for Brexit projects and assess value for money but it is not clear how the costs incurred by departments to implement Brexit will eventually be reported.
Recommendation: DExEU should publish by April 2018 details of the 300 plus workstreams to support Brexit, along with regular updated information on the delivery dates for new systems, system upgrades and new infrastructure.
Recommendation: The Treasury should set out by April 2018 how it expects departments to report the costs of implementing Brexit.
6.Brexit is a huge challenge for the civil service, but is also a real opportunity to make long-term improvements. The civil service has been going through a process of change in the last few years, particularly to improve the allocation of people with specialist skills across government. This is still work in progress, but the Cabinet Office tells us that had this work not already been underway government would not have been able to put in place processes such as centralised recruitment which has been important for filling Brexit roles. Introducing a different way of working will not be easy or straightforward, but this is an opportunity to accelerate change and rebuild skills that have been lost in recent years as the civil service has shrunk. DExEU considers it important that the experience and skills its staff are building up be kept in the civil service after Brexit. Concrete action will be needed to turn this desire into long-term improvements in the skills and capability of the civil service as a whole.
Recommendation: Government should demonstrate that it is actively learning from the experience of Brexit to build processes and ways of working which improve the skills and capability of the whole civil service. The Committee will in future hold DExEU and the Cabinet Office to account, not only for their work to implement the UK’s Exit from the EU, but also for what they have done to actively use the experience of Brexit to embed long-term improvements in the way the civil service conducts its business.
6 February 2018