Work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the UK civil service are at their highest rates in decades

By Sarah Nickson

Tuesday December 17, 2019

(Image: AAP/Leon Neal)

The United Kingdom’s election result will bring about profound and lasting change. After months of gridlock, Boris Johnson now has the parliamentary majority to take the UK out of the European Union by the end of January. But this is not the end of Brexit — and nor does it signal a straightforward time in office for Johnson.

Over the coming months, the prime minister will face difficult negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU and will be under pressure to deliver on his ambitious but vague campaign promises. He will also face intense pressure to hold the nations of the UK together.

The UK’s civil service is exhausted, and another Brexit deadline looms at the end of the year.  Boris Johnson’s challenges are far from over.

Boris Johnson’s victory clears the path to Brexit

After succeeding Theresa May as prime minister in July, Johnson came to office with a “do or die” promise to deliver Brexit by 31 October. He hastily negotiated a new withdrawal agreement with the EU in the weeks before that deadline but, like his predecessor, was unable to marshal the numbers in the House of Commons to pass the necessary legislation. The agreement was blocked by opposition MPs and even some members of his own Conservative party. In the face of this impasse, Johnson called an early election in the hope the electorate would deliver a more favourable parliamentary composition.

The gamble has paid off.  After winning with 365 of 650 seats in the House of Commons, Johnson has led the Conservative Party to its best election result since 1987. With a comfortable majority, Johnson no longer faces a constant balancing act of keeping his entire parliamentary party — with its differing views of Brexit — on side. He now has a degree of freedom to pursue his preferred form of Brexit — and focus on other priorities — in a way that was unthinkable before the election.

But this is only the beginning of the Brexit process

Johnson’s first task is to get the withdrawal agreement passed to settle the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU. The legislation must be approved by 29 January, ahead of the deadline for the UK’s departure from the EU and the point at which it enters an 11-month transition period.

But the agreement only covers the terms of the UK’s departure — the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border question — not its future relationship with the EU. This relationship will be the subject of a second phase of talks covering a wide range of complex topics such as trade, security co-operation, financial services, and fishing rights. The outcome will govern the relationship between the UK and the EU for decades in the future.

A deal on the future relationship must be agreed and ratified when the transition period ends on 31 December 2020, unless Johnson requests and the EU grants an extension to the transition period by June. Without a deal, or an extension to transition, the UK will exit on ‘no deal’ terms. This would mean border checks for goods and potential interruption of supply chains, loss of access to the EU market for service industries and immediate departure from EU institutions like the European Court of Justice and Europol, the law enforcement body.

Even if the future relationship terms are settled, the process of adapting to new political and economic arrangements will likely take years.

Brexit places pressure on the future of the Union

The result of the election places huge strain on the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scotland voted overwhelmingly for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has pledged a fresh referendum on Scottish independence. But a referendum cannot happen without the approval of Johnson’s government. The SNP’s strong showing (claiming 48 out of Scotland’s 59 seats), against a backdrop of Scottish resistance to Brexit, sets up a showdown between the SNP’s claimed mandate for a further independence referendum and Johnson’s refusal to give his government’s approval.

The results also mean that for the first time, a majority of MPs elected in Northern Ireland are from parties that support reunification with the Republic of Ireland, rather than remaining part of the UK. Johnson’s Brexit deal, which treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, may give momentum to those seeking Irish reunification.

The government must bridge the gap between promises and reality

Johnson will also have to deal with the universal challenge of government: reconciling voters’ expectations of services with their reluctance to pay for them. He’ll also need to fill in the details on some key policies.

The government has pledged to ramp up spending on schools and the NHS, and to hire 50,000 more nurses, to deliver on their promise of “world-class” public services. The investment is welcome. Funding for many public services was squeezed by the austerity policies that followed the 2008 financial crisis. But Institute for Government calculations show the sums promised are only enough to maintain standards, not improve them. And there’s little room in the medium term for the government to raise this spending without abandoning either their fiscal rules or their pledge not to increase personal income taxes.

Plans for aged care are scant. The government has promised to work towards a “cross-party consensus to bring forward an answer that solves the problem” but past attempts to sort out how much individuals and the state should pay have fallen victim to partisan point-scoring.

Lack of detail is also glaring on plans for the post-Brexit immigration system. The phrase “Australian-style points system” has become ubiquitous — and widely interpreted as code for a firm approach (despite Australia’s relatively high levels of migration), with a hint to business of openness to skilled migrants. But the government has not spelled out what this slogan might mean in the British context. Early hints suggest some confusion: the Conservatives’ statement that “most immigrants will need a job offer” is at odds with the Australian points system, where visas are awarded based on attributes like education, language skills and work experience, with no need to have a job confirmed. The government will need to make decisions soon, having promised to introduce legislation within the first 100 days.

No rest in sight for the civil service

The civil servants who will deliver Johnson’s agenda have been under considerable strain. Rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the civil service are at their highest rates in decades, and have been attributed to the intensity and uncertainty of Brexit, staff turnover and pay restraint. Some departments have resorted to shift work to cope with the Brexit workload, while others have offered counselling. Turnover is a long-standing problem that has been exacerbated by Brexit: more than four in 10 senior officials have been in their positions for less than a year.

Any post-election machinery of government changes will lead to more disruption. The Institute for Government has found the hit to morale and productivity can cost up to £34m a year for the creation of a medium-sized policy department, with a two-year timeframe for departments to be properly up and running. The government is yet to confirm changes, but a merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is rumoured — and will strike a chord with Australians who recall the move of AusAID into DFAT.

The election has strengthened Boris Johnson’s hand — within his own party and the Parliament.  It has done nothing, however, to answer the questions of how he intends to govern — or how will address some of the biggest challenges faced by the UK in decades.

Sarah Nickson is a researcher at the Institute for Government in the UK.

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