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…