Brexit opportunities: meeting government efficiency

Jacob Rees-Mogg wears two hats.

A hat is labeled Brexit Opportunities – the remnants of David Frost’s operation when responsibility for the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and the Withdrawal Agreement was transferred to Liz Truss of the Foreign Office when Frost exited. The other is labeled Government Efficiency – reminiscent of Francis Maude’s days in the Cabinet Office when he created an alternative center to push a practical efficiency agenda beyond the Treasury’s focus on total overall spending.

Earlier last week, Rees-Mogg offered Brexit opportunities in the Queen’s Speech.

On Friday he moved on to his role as the civil service gavel, promising 20% ​​cuts to bring the civil service back to its pre-Brexit and pre-Covid figures. Even that would be higher than the Cameron-Osborne government would have liked to see in the early 2020s – they were aiming for further cuts in their second term before the referendum result ended their administration so abruptly.

Rees-Mogg is right that the combination of Brexit and Covid has ushered in a bonanza of public service jobs. Promotions abounded in a “wild west” of opportunities for the ambitious to move in, get ahead, and boost turbocharger churn.

He’s also right that many of the jobs needed to manage the pandemic on a day-to-day basis are no longer needed as we learn to live with Covid.

But he must be careful that his ax does not leave a state that struggled to cope at the start of the pandemic as unresilient as before. The Covid survey is just getting started, but it may well find that the government needs to invest more in preparedness and crisis management readiness in quiet times, rather than just hitting the panic recruitment button as soon as the alarm bell begins to ring.

His view on Brexit should be much more nuanced. Between the referendum and the achievement of Brexit, there were three main drivers of activity: negotiating, legislating and implementing Brexit.

It would be easy to declare the negotiations over. But they are not. The TCA has set up a plethora of committees to service. Much of this will be done as part of the status quo in the departments – replacing the EU working groups that once occupied official time. But negotiations are still ongoing, particularly on the future of the Northern Ireland protocol. So much less to do – but not nothing.

The great Brexit legislation is over. Considerable effort has been made in Whitehall to transfer EU legislation into UK law. This work is done. But the Queen’s Speech showed that the legislative task is far from over. In an exceptional speech, 38 new bills were announced, many of which focused on exploiting the opportunities of Brexit. One of them is a bill empowering ministers to change retained EU law. This suggests that they are planning another giant slab of secondary legislation to change all that EU law that has been transferred to our statute book. It requires officials to design and draft.

The third major task is the implementation of Brexit. And it goes on and on.

The UK has taken on many tasks that once fell to the EU – and must replace Commission staff with British civil servants. The UK sanctions unit has tripled in size but was still slow in its initial response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We have a whole new department that did not exist before Brexit – the Department for International Trade responsible for negotiating new trade deals – a major Brexit opportunity, but which also requires new teams of trade negotiators and lawyers. We were also to set up a new quango – the Trade Remedies Authority – to manage our trade defense – but their staff do not count as civil servants as they are a non-departmental executive public body.

Other civil servants are needed to take on more mundane tasks that were previously carried out at EU level. The UK-EU border needs more people to manage, even if we don’t implement the controls in full. The Health and Safety Executive had to take over the management of the new UK chemicals register. The Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority can no longer look to the European Medicines Agency to authorize certain medicines and devices for the UK (and at the same time it has lost income working for the EMA). Permissions for the new UKCA manufacturing mark (replacing the EU CE mark) are facing delays due to a major capacity shortage in the UK.

And although Rees-Mogg has publicly stated that he is not interested in what the EU is doing, if the UK is to minimize trade disruption both at the UK-EU border and also at the GB border -NI, it must identify changes in EU rules. forthcoming (potential new restrictions on up to 12,000 chemicals come to mind) and how to respond to them.

The DExEU may be long gone, but the task of EU oversight and engagement lives on. Much more needs to be done to manage the “common frameworks” designed to maintain the coherence of the UK internal market. At the Home Office, staff had to go up to administer a new migration regime. Even though the number of entries remains broadly similar, free movement previously meant freedom of movement free of charge and without bureaucracy, while the new immigration regime means that everyone needs a visa and an official to issue it.

There will have been set-up costs and transition management costs. But Brexit also means real increases in the scope of what the UK government does.

They are the way Brexit is done and will continue to be done, not useless now as the government might claim. And they mean that if Rees-Mogg wants to get the civil service back to its pre-Brexit size, he, and especially his colleagues, will have to accept that Brexit means doing less of the other things they might want to do.

By Jill Rutter and Joël Reland, The United Kingdom in a Changing Europe.

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