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Whitehall preparations for EU Exit


Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU in 2016, Government Departments had to formulate new policies, procure goods and services, design and implement new systems and engage stakeholders, while planning for multiple potential outcomes and responding to changing deadlines.

Departments spent more than £4.4 billion on preparations between 2016 and 31 January 2020 (see also our recent inquiry on the Get Ready for Brexit public information campaign). Ahead of the then 31 October 2019 deadline, more than 22,000 civil servants were involved in EU Exit.

The National Audit Office has produced 28 reports examining government’s preparations up to September 2020, and the latest on learning for Government from preparations from EU exit pulls together the insights from breadth of its work on EU Exit to give perspectives on what government can learn from this experience to prepare for the end of the transition period.

It also has lessons for other cross-government challenges that have now arisen, such as the demands of the global Covid-19 pandemic, which similarly requires a fast-paced response, innovative policy solutions, coordinated action across government and effective, external transparency and communication; and longer-term challenges like preparing for the transition to a net zero carbon economy, which will require the civil service to innovate and operate in new ways.

The report finds Government still has a lot to do to manage the end of the transition period, particularly on preparations for the border. It is now also responding to the demands of a global pandemic, which like EU Exit requires a fast-paced response, coordinated action and effective external transparency and communication.

The key findings include:

  • The need for government to improve how it deals with uncertainty by planning for scenarios which will have a significant impact and could reasonably occur, even if some of these may not be the desired outcome.
  • The importance of government developing clear structures for quick decision-making and clear accountability. It should also draw on expertise in implementation from the start as a routine part of policy development, to build a realistic understanding of the scale and complexity of the task.
  • The need to engage early with partners, stakeholders, businesses and individuals to understand and communicate what is required of them.
  • The importance of strong financial management and the need to track spending from the outset.

In October the Committee will question senior Cabinet Office officials on Whitehall’s readiness for Britain’s exit from the European Union on December 31 this year, and what it is learning which can be applied to other major, cross-Governmnet, global challenges we now face.

If you have evidence on any of the issues raised in this inquiry, please submit it here by Thursday 1 October 2020.