'Extraordinary secrecy' hampering government preparations for Brexit

By agency reporter
June 11, 2018

Deep political divisions over Brexit are creating a culture of extraordinary secrecy in Whitehall, finds a new report from the Institute for Government (IfG).

Published on 10 June 2018, Preparing Brexit: How ready is Whitehall? says the greatest challenge in delivering Brexit now stems from the inability of a split Cabinet to make critical decisions. Political tensions are driving inordinate levels of secrecy, where key documents – even in relation to necessary planning – are classified higher than necessary and locked away in a few rooms across Whitehall. Important information is not being shared between departments, and those outside government with a legitimate reason to be kept informed, such as Parliament and business, are kept in the dark.

The report concludes that this secrecy makes effective co-ordination across departments, devolved administrations and public bodies extremely difficult. Preparations are being hindered by competing ministerial preferences, poor information flow and the continued deferral of critical decisions on the UK’s preferred future relationship.

In addition to secrecy and delayed decision making, the authors identify three other challenges, including struggling to get (and keep) the right civil servants in place, inconsistent planning assumptions and ineffective consultation with business.

The biggest challenges facing the Government – political divisions, minority government and impossibly tight timelines -– are not easily addressed. But the paper makes five recommendations to help get Whitehall back on the road to delivering Brexit:

  • The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and the Cabinet Office should set out how they plan to run formal negotiations with the EU after March 2019 and how the rest of Whitehall will be involved
  • DExEU and the Cabinet Office should work with the Department for International Trade (DIT) to set out how the Government plans to consult businesses and other affected groups during Brexit negotiations.
  • The PM should put a minister (David Lidington) and official (John Manzoni) in charge of Brexit readiness, so that government approaches preparedness with the same level of focus as negotiations
  • Departments must ruthlessly cut back on their existing priorities, supported by their non-executive directors.
  • DExEU must give its staff as much certainty as possible on the future of the department in order to reduce the level of staff turnover at such a critical time. As a start, permanent contracts should be given to civil servants who will have a role beyond 29 March 2019.

Joe Owen, Associate Director at the Institute of Government, said: “A huge amount of work has taken place in Whitehall over the last two years. Thousands of new staff have gone from nought to a hundred miles an hour, working on the thorniest issues Whitehall has faced in decades. But the toxic interplay between politics and planning poses a major risk to preparations. With negotiations turning to the future relationship, and the spectre of no deal hovering just months away, Whitehall needs to change gear. Internal and external secrecy are not compatible with the task ahead. Ministers must change tack and prioritise the flow of information over domestic political sensitivities.”

Jill Rutter, Brexit Programme Director at the Institute for Government, said: “The only answer to the question ‘how ready is Whitehall’ is: ready for what, exactly? There are multiple scenarios with multiple timelines still in play. Fourteen months after Article 50 was triggered, we still have no agreed UK position on key elements of the deal, let alone agreement with the rest of the EU. The current state of planning suggests only a messy Brexit will be possible, even with an implementation period to December 2020. Given the timetable for the future relationship negotiations, at some point the Government will have to decide whether it can live with that or wants to try to buy more time for better preparation.”

* Read Preparing Brexit: How ready is Whitehall? here

* Institute for Government https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/

[Ekk/6]

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