What happens to the Brexit department after Brexit?

Another dramatic civil service reorganisation

June 25, 2018
Brexit Secretary David Davis. What will happen to his department? Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Brexit Secretary David Davis. What will happen to his department? Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

The civil service has grown by more than 10,000 people since the European Union referendum, after years of cuts. Two new departments have been set up—the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and the Department for International Trade (DIT)—and thousands of existing civil servants reprioritised to focus on the task of preparing the UK for leaving. But there is more change to come.

Questions are already being asked about the future of the new, post-referendum departments. DExEU, in particular, was always going to be a temporary fixture. At some point, its name implies, the “Exiting” process will be complete and its services no longer required. But it remains unclear when this point will come—and what should happen to the department’s people and functions after it is disbanded.

DExEU was created for political reasons, but its future should be determined by practicalities. The department’s three key functions—supporting negotiations with the EU, and coordinating Brexit legislation and implementation work—will enter their most critical phase between March 2019 and December 2020, as the UK tries to negotiate the detail of its future partnership with the EU and ensure a smooth transition to third country status. Dismantling the department before the end of this planned transition period would be needlessly disruptive. At the very least its 650 staff will still be required. With many of them on contracts due to expire before or just after March 2019, and staff turnover already a problem, it is vital that they are given certainty on their future now.

Brexit work will continue beyond 2021, but DExEU’s functions may by then be better exercised elsewhere. The Cabinet Office is the obvious destination for most. It already coordinates legislation and is the hub for implementation expertise in government, so these DExEU functions would find a suitable home here. The Europe Unit, which returned to the Cabinet Office from DExEU last year to lead on negotiations for No 10, seems a natural place for the DExEU teams with experience of supporting the talks in Brussels—although the Foreign Office or DIT may also stake a claim to them.

The future of DIT itself is unclear, though. Created to highlight and exploit the opportunities of life after Brexit, the department is currently stuck trying to limit the damage as it rolls over existing free trade agreements. Looking ahead, it is the work being done by DExEU, the Cabinet Office and other Whitehall departments on the EU deal that will be the greatest determinant of future UK trade policy, and most other countries build trade capacity into their foreign affairs or business departments anyway. DIT was established to send a message to voters in 2016, but a Foreign Office seeking to re-establish its clout after Brexit is likely to look on it with hungry eyes.

Brexit also places arrangements at the UK border under the microscope. Two key issues need to be addressed with respect to the movement of goods: facilitation and security. Other major trading nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, make a single department or minister responsible for both. But in the UK, these functions are separated, sitting in HM Revenue and Customs and the Home Office respectively. And this is only part of the picture—more than 30 other departments, public bodies and agencies also have an operational or policy role at the border, making coordinating Brexit plans extremely difficult. A new “Border Planning Group” was created last year to bring these interests together and make them cohere. It could, if successful, mark the first step towards bringing the management of goods crossing the border under one roof.

Then there is immigration. Ending free movement and transitioning to a more “managed” approach entails a complete overhaul of the existing system. The handling of migration will also be crucial to the industrial strategy as a means of supporting different industries and regions. But in the wake of the Windrush scandal, there are growing doubts as to whether the Home Office is the best place in which to do that rethinking. That could mean a new migration department, with stronger links to labour market policy and an added role on integration or citizenship.

Two years on from the EU referendum, Whitehall has already undergone a rapid transformation. But the bulk of the negotiations, legislation and implementation work is still to come. The challenges faced by the civil service are becoming apparent, but its future shape remains unclear. Just don’t expect things to stay the same.