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Civil Service ‘woefully underprepared’ for Brexit as Article 50 triggered

The government must act to provide the Civil Service with the resources it needs to cope with significant challenges posed by Brexit, two unions have warned after Theresa May triggered article 50, formally kick-starting the process of Britain’s exit from the EU.

In separate statements, public sector unions the FDA and Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) both stated that the clock was now ticking for the government to provide fresh funds for the Civil Service to prepare it for the pressure that will follow over the next two years as the UK negotiates its route out of Europe.

The FDA say that the Civil Service will be “at the heart of delivering new trade relationships, transposing EU laws into British ones and overhauling immigration, customs and agricultural policies currently handled by the EU,” and must be sufficiently resourced to keep talented staff who can get the UK the best deal possible coming out of the EU.

The call from the FDA also follows its warning last month that civil servants were at risk of being little more than “cheerleaders,” for the UK under current Brexit plans.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: “The countdown has begun and the prime minister must act now to properly resource the Civil Service if she wants to enter this two-year process on a strong footing.

Huge budget cuts in recent years have left the Civil Service is at its smallest since before the Second World War and the government can no longer ignore mounting calls from the likes of Lord Kerslake, the Institute for Government and the National Audit Office to review Civil Service capacity.

Penman added that the challenges Britain’s Civil Service was facing had “significantly changed,” yet Whitehall was still “blindly,” going ahead with outdated budget plans and efficiency targets set by the chancellor.

“If the government wants to retain the talented civil servants it already has, as well as attract the new skills required to prepare for a post-Brexit Britain, now is the time to seriously review its approach to departmental spending, workforce planning and Civil Service pay,” Penman concluded.

This was a view also shared by the PCS, who identified that key areas of the Civil Service were not fit for purpose in their current state to deal with Brexit.

In particular, the PCS pointed out that an NAO report had raised major concern that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was in desperate need of legal, economic and sector expertise to deal with Brexit and its wider implications.

General secretary Mark Serwotka argued: “As the government triggers Article 50 it is clear to everyone that the Civil Service is woefully understaffed and underprepared for Brexit.”

“While we engage in the long, complex process of withdrawal from the EU, there will be no let-up in the demand for existing services,” Serwotka explained. “All cuts plans must be halted immediately to allow us to properly discuss the staffing and resources that are needed.”

Labour – devolution key to managing Brexit

As article 50 was triggered, Labour’s Welsh assembly also announced that it was forming a taskforce to discuss the direction of devolution in a post-Brexit Britain.

The first meeting of the taskforce, which includes Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones, former prime minister Gordon Brown, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, as well as John Prescott, shadow devolution minister Jim McMahon and GMCA mayoral candidate Andy Burnham, was held yesterday at its launch in Cardiff.

In a joint statement, the taskforce said that it was now clear the current constitution was “no longer fit for purpose,” and was in need of reform out of the capital.

The UK government would claim for Westminster those devolved responsibilities currently administered by Brussels – increasing the concentration of power in what has until recently been one of the most centralised states in the developed world,” the statement read

“As leading Labour figures from across the UK, we reject this Whitehall power grab – and call on the UK government as part of the Brexit negotiations to agree to the transfer of powers over agriculture, fisheries, regional policy and environmental protection to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.”

The taskforce added that the key to bridging social and economic inequalities was in a decentralised UK, something it believes will “strengthen the bonds that tie our four nations together”.

“It is time to continue the process that has commenced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by placing bottom-up economic power in the hands of the English regions which would boost local economies, enhance the delivery of public services and ensure that the voices of those left behind by economic growth are listened to,” the statement concluded.

A cabinet office spokesperson said: "The UK is well placed to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead as we prepare for Brexit.

"The government is focused on delivering our commitment to leave the EU and getting the very best deal for the UK, and we are equipping ourselves with the right people and the right skills across government to make this happen."

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