Civil servants bear brunt of Brexit uncertainty

Civil servants bear brunt of Brexit uncertainty

The Brexit process has resulted in a huge amount of uncertainty, not least for civil servants who are at the frontline of preparing the UK for exit.

Brexit Scrabble

Nobody can know for sure what will happen next, but few people have a better grip on the impact of Brexit on the civil service than Jill Rutter, a Brexit specialist at the independent Institute for Government think tank.

Prospect was delighted to host Jill at its public service pay seminar in November and she had a simple message for the union's members in the civil service: “It is an incredibly unstable time.”

After a comprehensive look at the huge challenge the government faces in getting its deal through parliament, and then putting in place the subsequent legislation needed to make the deal a legal reality, Jill turned to the role of the civil service itself in Brexit preparedness.

The sheer scale of the task she presented was daunting – the government needs to put in place 55 new processes and, more worryingly, build and test new IT systems before March.

This not a matter of money, with the Treasury committing billions for Brexit work, but simply a matter of time and logistics, which is placing a huge strain on civil servants, she said.

Jill pointed in particular to the ‘handbrake turn’ in staffing numbers at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which is desperate to recruit the skilled staff it will need to handle Brexit.

An even starker example is the new Trade Remedies Authority, which are currently recruiting staff, but may not have any work to do until 2023 or even later. As Jill pointed out, this huge expansion of civil service numbers hardly fits with the small state agenda of many leading advocates of Brexit.

End of austerity?

But the impact of Brexit is often felt indirectly as well as directly. Jill argued that the spending review in 2019 will be a crucial test of whether the government is serious about the end of austerity.

On current plans, she said, while the NHS may have had a cash injection, more cuts to other departments were baked in. This has been combined with the loss of staff from core functions in order to undertake Brexit work, with only some roles being backfilled by departments.

An interesting side effect is that the churn caused by Brexit has ‘unfrozen’ the Whitehall jobs market with some people being able to secure promotions. However, it has caused uncertainty in other areas, especially due to the use of fixed-term contracts.

Finally, Jill highlighted perhaps the most unsavoury side effect of Brexit – the widespread demonisation of civil servants and attacks on the independence and impartiality of the service from government ministers.

Jill said we should brace ourselves for this to get even worse, first with the updated Brexit economic forecasts set to be published and after Brexit when politicians may seek to blame civil servants for mishandling the negotiations.

The role of trade unions in defending staff from these attacks is going to be more important than ever in the coming months and years, she said.

Jill did at least offer one glimmer of reassurance: the public has never had a more favourable view of civil servants compared to politicians. Given the current chaos in Westminster, it is not hard to see why.