UK Politics

Warning over government 'overload' ahead of Brexit

Theresa May at Prime Minister's Questions Image copyright PA

Ministers are trying to do too much and there is a "sense of overload" in Whitehall even before it grapples with the challenge of Brexit, it is claimed.

The Institute for Government said the government was "continuing to function" despite having a fifth fewer civil servants than in 2010 and "turf wars" resulting from preparations for Brexit.

The government has abandoned four proposed bills in the past six months.

In its report, the think tank warned government had become less transparent.

The government is expected to clear the parliamentary schedule in the coming weeks to allow Parliament to debate legislation needed to approve the start of Brexit talks.

This is having a knock-on effect on the government's wider agenda, with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt revealing on Tuesday that legislation to ensure all foreign migrants and visitors were charged for health treatment had been dropped.

He told the Health Select Committee the government was not proceeding with the NHS Overseas Visitor Charging Bill "because of Brexit" but insisted the NHS was still expected to recover more money from people not entitled to free care.

Proposed bills on prison and school reform have already been discarded since the EU referendum, while plans for a British bill of rights have been put on the backburner.

'Challenging'

In 2014, the head of the civil service said the government was doing 30% too much, while unions representing civil servants have warned that budget cuts have left many departments struggling to cope with the fallout from the EU referendum.

In its annual assessment of the shape, size and performance of government, the Institute for Government said the number of one-off major projects being undertaken had fallen but the government still had too much on its plate.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Legislation to make foreign migrants pay the cost of healthcare in full has been dropped

It said ministers had appeared to "shoehorn" as many commitments from their 2015 election manifesto into their departmental business plans as possible and many of these had not been updated since the vote to leave the EU.

Among these priorities, it said, were "everything from social mobility and 'just about managing' families to Heathrow expansion, devolution and public sector reform".

"This remains a challenging to-do list even before considering the impact of Brexit," it said.

"The sense of overload is also borne out by the single department plans."

It said the pressure on government had not been helped by the high level of ministerial turnover following David Cameron's resignation and the "disruption" to the machinery of government caused by a restructuring ordered by Theresa May after she took power.

Three new departments - for exiting the European Union, international trade and business, energy and industrial strategy - have been created, while the department for energy and climate change has been scrapped.

'Lack of clarity'

The think tank said the Brexit department, under David Davis, had "found its feet quickly", but it speculated whether it would have been simpler to appoint a cabinet-level minister to spearhead the UK's exit from within an existing department such as the Cabinet Office.

"Creating new departments to manage Brexit proved to be a distraction," it said.

"With three departments managing Brexit, time and energy was inevitably wasted in turf wars, fragmentation, incoherence and a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities."

While the civil service was coping, it said, staff numbers were at a 70-year low and some departments that had shrunk considerably since 2010 may need to recruit new staff to address specific challenges relating to the process of migrating EU into UK law.

"Departments thus face big challenges in planning for and beyond Brexit, many doing so with fewer staff and less money while needing to carry out relatively unfamiliar tasks," it said.

'Information dump'

It also warned the government had taken a backward step in terms of openness, with a lower proportion of Freedom of Information requests being answered than in 2010.

In the second quarter of 2016, information was withheld in full in 40% of requests, compared with 25% in 2010.

The Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Department for Education were among the worst offenders, the report said.

Measuring the government's performance was made harder by the "opacity" of its finances, it added, with publication of monthly spending by individual departments "patchy" and new departments yet to release any information at all.

Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the government needed to "up its game".

"Too often we find that departments have a lack of meaningful data," she said.

"Information also needs to be provided in a meaningful way - it is not acceptable to just dump spreadsheets on the internet."

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