Creating a new Brexit department, plus another to negotiate new trade deals – thus cutting the Foreign Office down to size, figuratively if not literally – was always bound to provoke interest in the following. 1) The personalities of the Secretaries of State who run them, and how the three of them will get along, or not. 2) What functions the new departments will take from the old one, or try to. And 3) How big the new departments will become, where they will be sited, how small the Foreign Office will be…and how the creator of this stucture, Theresa May, will oversee Messrs Johnson, Davis and Fox – plus Brexit as a whole.
And, sure enough, there have been a rash of stories about all of these – but rather less about how good the new departments will be at doing what they’ve been tasked with. That will depend, up to a point, on who they recruit. Which leads us to a fact about recruitment.
Back in 2010, between a third and a half of all civil service vacancies were advertised to the civil service only. The Coalition Agreement pledged: “We will open up Whitehall recruitment by publishing Central Government job vacancies online”. The Communites Department (CLG) has led the way since then in having full open recruitment. But six years on, little has changed elsewhere. In January, Sajid Javid, then Business Secretary, launched an inquiry into what he called “the last closed shop”, adding that “everyone should have the opportunity to apply for these good and well-paid jobs in the public sector and it’s unfair that a large number of people currently can’t”.
As he suggested, the practice is unfair not only to those who work in the voluntary and private sectors, but also those who work elsewhere in the public sector (such as local government). It also means that when the civil service uses people from these sectors it does so on a consultancy basis, which is often more costly to the taxpayer
ConservativeHome is told that, across the civil service as whole, there are about 800 vacancies on the civil service’s website that anyone can apply for and roughly 900 that only civil servants can apply for – because those latter vacancies are advertised on an internal version of the website only. A CLG analysis last year found that 30 per cent of its vacancies are now filled internally, 30 per cent by applicants from other Departments and 40 per cent by external candidates. Why should other departments, and the new Brexit-facing ones in particular, not have the same opportunity to recruit the best and brightest from outside the civil service – cutting down those consultancy costs while they are at it?
The trade department has a particular need for trade negotiators. Oliver Letwin claimed that it has none at all. But the moral also applies to the new Brexit Department. There is a fuss about its size. But, as so often in life, it isn’t size that matters most. Javid’s review must be followed through.