In Depth

‘Instinct for secrecy’: the government department accused of blocking Brexit planning

Now-defunct Department for Exiting the European Union under fire for withholding information

Preparations for Britain’s departure from the EU were stalled by an unwarranted “instinct for secrecy” within the government department tasked with overseeing the plans, according to a new report from Whitehall’s spending watchdog.

The analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO) suggests that the now-defunct Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) hindered trade talks and put intense pressure on civil servants that led many to quit.

So did the department really set the UK on the path to what seems to be the increasingly likely outcome of a no-deal Brexit?

What else does the report say?

The DExEU was formed by then-prime minister Theresa May shortly after the UK voted Leave in June 2016 and was disbanded on 31 January this year, when the UK officially left the EU and entered the transition period.

The purpose of the department was to oversee negotiations for the terms of Britain’s department, but according to the 23-page NAO report, “DExEU kept a tight hold on communications, keeping secret anything which might pertain to the UK’s negotiating position”.

“This instinct for secrecy in government can get in the way of effective coordination, collaboration and a sense of urgency in progressing towards a common goal,” the report adds.

The watchdog found that the department routinely “issued non-disclosure agreements when discussing plans that were meant to inform the public and the business community”, says The Guardian, which notes that “more than 22,000 workers were deployed across Whitehall departments on the preparations, which cost £4.4bn”.

The NAO report concludes that these “non-disclosure agreements undermined transparency and hampered the spread of information to the business community at large”.

What about the effect on staff?

The newly published report says that preparations for Brexit pushed all branches of Whitehall into “unusually compressed timetables, affecting both internal processes but also the time available to design and carry out major projects such as building new IT systems”.

This increased workload “did have an impact on the people carrying out the work”, and staff turnover in roles focused on Brexit was “higher than for the civil service in general”, the NAO adds.

Staff turnover was highest within the DExEU and the problem was “particularly acute at more senior grades”, the report continues. “In its less than four years in existence, DExEU had three permanent secretaries.

“Other departments most affected by EU Exit have also seen changes at permanent secretary level, including Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and HMRC.”

And the reaction?

NAO Gareth Davies says the government “can draw on this learning in preparing for the end of the transition period and beyond, and in managing other cross-government challenges including its response to Covid-19”.

With the UK’s official exit from the EU only months away, the new report also offers ammunition to critics who disagree with the government’s handling of Brexit negotiations.

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Christine Jardine has pointed to the NAO findings as further evidence that the Tories have made a “dog’s dinner” of Britain’s divorce from Europe.

“How Boris Johnson ever thought he could get a deal by the end of July with the chaos behind the scenes in Whitehall is beyond me,” said the MP.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, criticised Downing Street for taking “too long to get to grips with the challenge it was facing”.

The government “must not make these mistakes again when weighing up how best to allocate resources between the pandemic response, Brexit and its other priorities”, Hillier added.

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