15.Implementation of the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) will require coordinated delivery across central and local government and the devolved administrations, coupled with good communication with business and other stakeholders. Our predecessors have repeatedly highlighted examples in government where confusion over who is responsible for what has caused delays in decision-making, caused things to fall through the gaps, and hindered project delivery. The Cabinet Office referred to the “whole stack of” decisions that still needed to made on Brexit, under time pressure, across a range of areas. Effective implementation of Brexit will require clarity over who is responsible for what.
16.We found it difficult to identify who, at official level, is responsible for overall progress on Brexit being on track and who “cracks the whip” on the difficult decisions. At the centre of government each of the central departments is involved, including Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU), No10, the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, along with numerous teams within these departments. Almost every department of state has a responsibility for delivering some of the various work steams. DExEU told us it was responsible for “the coherence of the whole”, namely advising on the overarching approach for Brexit and coordinating planning and delivery across government. It argued that it could not be held responsible for the actual delivery of the work streams.
17.We were told that the Cabinet Secretary, who has an overview of the whole of the civil service, supported by John Manzoni in the Cabinet Office and DExEU, can challenge the work that is being done on the workstreams by departments but that responsibility remained with individual departments. The Cabinet Secretary challenged departments on their progress twice during stocktakes held in 2017. DExEU described these exercises as “enormously helpful in terms of sifting out the big issues”, although it was less clear what action would be taken if departments felt they could not carry out their workload. DExEU indicated that it would be moving to monthly reporting to the Cabinet Secretary in 2018.
18.Four ministerial committees focus on preparations for EU withdrawal and negotiations, and international trade with non-EU countries. In addition, an inter-ministerial group was set up in autumn 2017 to “up the momentum” of decision-making. The committee overseeing preparations for withdrawal and the future relationship is supported at official level by a cross-government board which considers issues across departments. The committee overseeing preparations and the inter-ministerial group are, in turn, underpinned by seven official level boards and eight official level working groups. These boards and working groups work alongside others supporting the other cabinet committees. We challenged the witnesses on whether this structure was too complicated. DExEU argued that it was working but accepted that it needed to obtain feedback from departments on whether it was working for government as a whole.
19.DExEU told us that of the approximately 130 high priority work streams (out of the overall total of 300 plus workstreams), there were “probably about 20 or so” which needed to move more quickly. The Cabinet Office expected that government would be in a “satisfactory” position by March 2019 but did not expand on what this meant. Parliament has no information on what these 20 projects are, why they are top priority, and when the projects are expected to be implemented by. DExEU argued that the negotiations with the EU placed an inhibition on it in terms of how transparent it could be. It suggested that projects would “come into the public space” as they progress through procurement “in the normal way”.
20.The Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which provides assurance to the Cabinet Office and departments on progress on projects across government, is beginning to think about a “special assurance regime” for Brexit projects. It recognises that the assurance process for the Government’s Major Project Portfolio, which relies on a quarterly reporting process, may not be suitable given the shorter delivery timescales required for some of the Brexit work steams. We look forward to seeing what this “special assurance regime” will look like and the level of transparency it would provide Parliament.
21.So far, the Treasury has set out in high-level terms the money it has made available to departments although not the amounts received by individual departments. It has allocated £250m from the contingency reserve to departments for Brexit work in 2017–18, alongside £412m to set up DExEU and DIT. The Treasury told us that it would release information on how the 2017–18 money had been allocated in the Spring Supplementary Estimates, almost at the end of the financial year.
22.The 2017 Budget set aside £1.5 billion in each of 2018–19 and 2019–20 for Brexit. HM Treasury expects that existing processes will be used to allocate this funding and assess value for money. In our recent report on Brexit and the UK border we said we were “concerned that HM Treasury’s usual business model is inadequate for allocating Brexit funding to departments who are forced to operate together, at pace, to a hard deadline … ”. When questioned as part of this inquiry HM Treasury reported that discussions on the 2018–19 allocations were “well under way” and that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was likely to make a statement to the House some time before the beginning of the next financial year.
23.In our recent evidence session on the Whole of Government Accounts, we highlighted the need to see how much Brexit is costing, in terms of money being put into departments to deal with it. We followed up this theme with DExEU, asking whether Parliament and the public, once the UK had left the EU, would have full transparency on the final bill paid to the EU and why. DExEU suggested that there would be full transparency. We similarly asked about information on the full financial impact of the UK leaving the EU. DExEU was less clear, suggesting that “all those things would have to be priced through normal departmental procedures and so on”.
24.The Cabinet Office recognised that the implementation of Brexit provides an opportunity to introduce a different way of working across the civil service, whilst noting that this would not be “easy or straightforward”. The Cabinet Office felt that Brexit was allowing it to “have a grip across the system”, and suggested that, for example, its ability to provide this Committee with information on vacancies was not something it could have done three years before. The Cabinet Office also cited the recently established arrangements for building up specialist expertise across central government. Previously departments had been hiring, for example, technologists into different roles, paying them different amounts, and giving them different titles. It reported that common job descriptions had been drawn up, with 37 roles set out in technical job families. This had taken eight months to set up. Having common job descriptions had enabled Cabinet Office to run central recruitment campaigns for these roles and some of the other specialist skills needed to support Brexit. It believed that this was “much more efficient” than each department having to do their own recruitment round.
25.DExEU thought that its staff were building up “extraordinary experience” which would stand the civil service in good stead for the future. However many of its staff are on short-term contracts, either loaned from other government departments, or from outside the civil service. It reported that it was seeking to develop the skills of its people to maximise the chances of them staying in the civil service when their jobs in DExEU come to an end.
31 Committee of Public Accounts, , HC 414, Thirteenth Report of Session 2015–16, 16 December 2015; Committee of Public Accounts, , HC 642, Twenty-sixth Report of Session 2015–16, 2 March 2016
32 Q 26
33 Q 80
34 Qq 73–75
35 Qq 74, 96
36 Q 97
37 Qq 30, 80–81
38 Q 97
39 Qq 30–31, 98–99
40 Q 85–86
41 Q 45
42 Q 92
43 Q 25
44 Q 49–51
45 Q 53
46 Q 52
47 Committee of Public Accounts, , HC 558, Seventh Report of Session 2017–19, 8 December 2017, para 4
48 Qq 53–54
49 Committee of Public Accounts, , HC 463, Wednesday 29 November 2017, Q117
50 Q 67
51 Qq 71, 72
52 Q 60
53 Q 18
54 Q 10
55 Q 15; C&AG’s Report, , page 18.
6 February 2018