Public bodies are on the frontline of the Brexit countdown: here's how they feel | Jill Rutter

Jill Rutter
Leaders of the UK’s public bodies see increased workload as the biggest challenge in implementing Brexit Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Attention finally turned last week to some of the big implementation challenges of Brexit, including whether the Home Office can recruit the staff needed to process more than 3m applications from EU residents for “settled status”, and when the UK government should start spending to cope with the potential exit from the customs union.

Public bodies are on the frontline of preparing for Brexit in many different ways, including administering the country’s borders, implementing and enforcing regulation and running programmes. No surprise, then, that Brexit is the theme for the annual meeting of the Public Chairs’ Forum on 18 October.

In the summer, the Institute for Government thinktank, in partnership with the Public Chairs’ Forum and the Association of Chief Executives, conducted a survey of some of the UK’s 400-plus public bodies to ask them how ready they felt for Brexit. The results give a taste of the challenges and possible opportunities.

Most organisations expect their work to be affected. Regulators know they will face significant impacts, but others remain very uncertain about how Brexit will affect them, pointing out that much depends on the outcome of the negotiations. Many organisations point out that the legal basis on which they operate could be radically affected.

High profile bodies such as the Civil Aviation Authority, Ofcom, the Competitions and Markets Authority will be among those most profoundly affected – but the impacts stretch to much smaller and less well known bodies.

If bodies were unclear in June, little has happened to make the terms on which we leave any clearer in October.

The biggest concern for all public bodies in the survey is higher workload. But those who responded also point to shortages of expertise in key areas where EU bodies currently fill the gap . This is potentially a big concern for regulators that will have to take on responsibilities currently exercised by EU bodies, as it is not something that can be acquired in months, or even years. There are budget implications too, with potentially higher running costs at the same time as a loss of income from work now undertaken for EU bodies or countries.

Arm’s-length public bodies also have more general concerns than other public employers about Brexit They worry about losing some of their current specialist workforce and would find them hard to replace and also about losing influence in Europe. They would have to follow European standards, but with less scope to influence them. The government’s “future partnership” papers recognise the desirability of continuing participation and collaboration between regulators.

But it’s not all negative. Some public bodies see Brexit as a welcome way of gaining new powers. One organisation commented that Brexit provides the potential for better targeted, less bureaucratic delivery of funding. Others believe Brexit could lead to them having a closer relationship with their sponsor department or an opportunity to prove their worth to their customers.

Most stress the need for time to adjust and the need for at least a financial year to plan. If they need to be ready for March 2019, that gives the government a six-month deadline to clarify how Brexit, or the Brexit transition, will work: crucially, what powers go where, and what the relationship to existing agencies will be. The commitment to a standstill transition will help, but bodies also want to know how long they will have to prepare for their new responsibilities.

Public bodies are a crucial link between government and the public; they know what will and won’t work on the ground. The government needs to recognise public bodies’ key role and ensure they are fully engaged as the Brexit countdown continues.

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