How Brexit is killing domestic policy
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On Wednesday afternoon, normally one of the busiest days of the parliamentary week, the House of Commons adjourned at 3.27pm.
The fact that MPs packed up for the day after just four hours of debate was largely ignored by the media. But it is the latest indication of how Brexit has brought normal business in Westminster and Whitehall to a standstill.
In some ways, this is no surprise. So much depends on whether Theresa May can get a Brexit deal approved by MPs that the mountain of accompanying Brexit legislation (on agriculture, fisheries, financial services etc) has been put on hold.
But there is another factor. Britain’s system of government is now so dominated by Brexit that ministers and officials have limited capacity to consider anything else.
“The politicians are completely distracted by Brexit and the civil servants are increasingly taxed by preparations for no deal,” says Dr Emily Andrews, associate director at the Institute for Government. “Many major domestic policy issues facing the country are not being addressed.”
Dr Andrews cites numerous examples of this. A green paper on the reform of social care — originally due in October 2017 and one of the biggest public policy challenges facing the UK — is nowhere to be seen.
Ministers have not yet published a promised white paper on internet safety — also a matter of growing public concern.
The government lacks an over-arching strategy to tackle the recent surge in knife crime. “There are bits and bobs going on,” says Dr Andrews, “but for something as serious as this you need a ‘whole of government’ approach and there just isn’t the bandwidth for that.”
Above all, the government lacks a strategy for dealing with the squeeze on public services that an ageing population will inevitably bring, while managing increasing public expectations. “If it wasn’t for Brexit, that would be the biggest issue of the day,” says Dr Andrews.
The government is not completely paralysed. Ministers recently produced a long-term plan on National Health Service funding. The Department for Education last week published a long-awaited strategy on teacher recruitment and retention.
But Brexit is sucking up more and more capacity in Westminster and Whitehall. Some 4,000 civil servants are being moved from their day jobs to focus on no deal. The House of Lords is next week tackling 19 complex No-Deal regulations but that is “almost the entirety of its business”.
In her Times column this week, Rachel Sylvester notes how the rise in expulsions of troubled pupils from mainstream schools — and the failure of government to respond — is contributing to the surge in knife crime. As she puts it: “Whitehall is stumbling in the Brexit fog while children are stabbing each other in the street.”
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“All of this points to a situation where, under Labour’s plan, British civil servants are welcomed — even warmly — into meetings with their EU counterparts. Their views will be politely — even eagerly — listened to. And then they will leave, and the political calculations of the EU27 will determine what goes into any subsequent trade deal. The UK will be given some kind of a say, for sure, and the EU will most likely listen. But it does not have to act.” (Alan Beattie, FT)
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