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22 Jul 2016 04:47pm

EU exit tidal wave could engulf Whitehall, NAO head warns

The “abnormal challenge” of EU exit negotiations for a civil service which is already struggling to cope with the government’s portfolio of major infrastructure projects could see the whole of Whitehall grinding to a halt under its own weight, the head of the National Audit Office has warned

In an unusually frank speech at the Institute of Government yesterday, Sir Amyas Morse described the EU exit project as “a tidal wave coming up the beach”.

“It is an emergency. If we don’t get it right, it will affect our economy and standards of life in this country.

“To say we are going to carry it on and do everything we did before, I just don’t think that’s going to be sustainable.”

He called on government to prioritise the list of projects and defer those that are not mission critical, and he urged civil servants to stop pretending that they can deliver whatever government ministers throw at them, not least because they are already over-committed at a time when their workforces are shrinking.

“At present, the government’s portfolio of major projects is enormous,” he said. “It includes central government’s biggest and riskiest projects, and in September 2015 it had an estimated whole-life value of £405bn.”

The public sector should ask itself if it really was capable of delivering Hinckley Point C, a third runway, HS2, a northern power house, nuclear decommissioning, Trident renewal and restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster all at the same time.

“With such a large portfolio of major projects, I frequently see a ‘muddling through’ at the expense of a real business-like managerial approach to policy implementation. A ‘go for it’ heroic effort is prized at the expense of clearly thought-out strategic prioritisation.”

In addition to existing projects, Morse warned that Brexit would add a whole new raft of unknowns and requirements as a result of which the public sector would face major upheaval for years to come.

He pointed to evidence that existing activities are being “denuded of capability” as civil servants are being reassigned to the huge task of uncoupling the UK from Europe. Unless the government takes action quickly, he added, “we will have set civil servants a Herculean task and set them up to fail”.

“Ministers need to recognise the depth of the challenge they face. Quite understandably, they often have eyes too big for their stomachs.

“I realise that this doesn’t sound like I have a lot of sympathy with ministers and their dilemma. But I really do – managing the political culture is not easy. But we should not be running on perpetual overload as a normal state – so we need to be in control of and manage our commitments against our capacity to carry them out.”

He suggested that the EU exit should be managed pro-actively across government rather than as a series of panic measures. “There is the potential for a real mess if this isn’t gripped.”

Julia Irvine

 

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