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Brexit: Other Policy Areas

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that appropriate consideration is being given by all departments to other policy areas alongside the preparations for the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

My Lords, the Civil Service has the capacity to deliver policies as prioritised by the Government and to deploy resources appropriately. We are ensuring that we properly resource and deliver on these priorities, such as backing the long-term plan for the NHS with an extra £33.9 billion a year in cash terms by 2023-24, creating record high employment, building more new homes, developing fresh policies to protect the environment and investing record sums in infrastructure.

I thank the Minister for that response. However, is he aware of the frustration within and outside Parliament about the number of key social issues that are being ignored or deferred because of the emphasis placed on Brexit? I am thinking of Bills on such issues as domestic violence, mental health and social care. When is the Government going to catch up?

On the issue of social care, the noble Baroness will have heard responses from my noble friend who was pressed on the progress of the Green Paper on social care. I cannot add to what she said. As regards Brexit squeezing out legislation, we made it clear at the beginning of the Session—which we knew would last slightly longer than usual—that Brexit would be a priority. However, we have so far introduced 63 government Bills, 44 of which have received Royal Assent, and, in addition to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, 10 exit-related Bills are in Parliament or have received Royal Assent. So we have introduced 52 Bills that are not related to exit. It is not the case that Brexit has squeezed out all relevant social legislation.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the capacity of the Civil Service. The Conservatives were keen to reduce Civil Service numbers, did so in 2016 and planned to in 2017. Since then, I understand that they have had to go through some emergency recruiting to bring numbers up to what is needed to handle preparations for Brexit—and in particular a no-deal Brexit—and have not yet started on the number of extra civil servants we will need to staff all the agencies that will have to be created to replace those EU agencies that provided us with shared services. Can he give us some estimate of the additional number of civil servants who have already been recruited and the extra numbers we will need if and when we leave?

I wish I could, but I honestly do not have those figures in front of me. The Civil Service has always had the flexibility to reflect government priorities and move people around from one department to another. At the beginning of the Blair Government, when constitutional reform was a priority—with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and reform of your Lordships’ House—resources were pushed into that. In the 1980s, when we had nationalisation, resources went there. So the Civil Service has the capacity to respond to challenges and, in my view, has always risen to that challenge.

My Lords, does the Civil Service have the capacity to respond to all the pledges that are currently being made?

It would be premature at this stage to cost all the promises that are being made by the two contenders for the leadership of my party. When one of them becomes leader and Prime Minister, no doubt the Civil Service will then present him with a bill. Reality will then move in and difficult choices will have to be made about priorities.

My Lords, the Secretary of State has acknowledged that the Government do not have what they call the “bandwidth” to deal with social care alongside Brexit. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has described social care in England as adrift on a “sea of inertia”. Is it not time that the Government did something to put an end to this inertia? I am afraid that the Minister’s response on social care was a bit dismissive in this context.

I genuinely regret it if I sounded dismissive. I have sat through many exchanges on social care and the undertakings given to produce it by a given date. I understand the disappointment of noble Lords that that date has not been arrived at. There was an exchange with my noble friend relatively recently. I understand the urgency. We will produce the social care Green Paper as soon as we possibly can.

My Lords, am I the only one to suspect that the complaints about Brexit dragging on, and the damaging implications of that, come from the very same sources as those designed to prevent Brexit ever being brought about? Would the logic of all this not be to get on with Brexit, get it finished and done, close down the Brexit department and get on with the rest of our lives?

Yes. The Government plan to leave the European Union by the end of October and then we will indeed be able to get on with some of the other pressing issues. But I make the point that the Government have been taking action that does not require legislation. We had the Statement yesterday repeated by my noble friend about the 10-year NHS implementation plan. We have had Statements about zero carbon and about a breathing space for those in debt. We have announced 22 new free schools. So it is not the case that pressure on legislation is crowding out important initiatives that drive up the quality of life in this country.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby has just taken her oath, in which defence was twice mentioned. Of course, defence and the security of the realm are the absolute highest priorities of any Government. Yet we are stumbling towards a comprehensive spending review with Armed Forces that everyone accepts are underfunded, and there seems to be almost no debate about it. Does the Minister agree that the amount of time this House has spent debating the most serious matter for any Government is rather small?

If the noble Lord had joined my party three months ago, he would have been able to vote for one of the candidates who has made a specific pledge on defence expenditure. No doubt he is regretting that he did not take that step.

My Lords, one of the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party has suggested that Civil Service leave during August should be cancelled. What impact does the Minister think that will have on Civil Service recruitment?

If my party has any members who are civil servants, I think they would be unlikely to vote for that candidate. But the statement was qualified by saying that this would happen only if the Permanent Secretary was unable to give an assurance that all the Brexit preparations had been done; only if that assurance was not given would the threat be implemented. I am sure that the Permanent Secretaries will rise to the challenge.