The Permanent Secretary for the Department for Exiting the EU, Philip Rycroft, appeared before the Committee for Exiting the EU and I asked him about the Brexit impact assessment papers.
Stephen Kinnock: Thank you very much, Mr Rycroft, for coming to see us today. I am just interested in the wording of the 1 November motion, which was of course passed unanimously by the House and ruled as binding by the Speaker. I know, obviously, that as a civil servant you are not involved in the political discussions that have taken place between Ministers and Whips, but were you aware of the wording of that motion at a stage at which you could potentially, you feel, have intervened and said to Ministers, “Well, the House is asking for something that does not exist”?
Philip Rycroft: The response to a motion like that is obviously for the political side of the Government to deal with. I personally was not aware of the terms of the motion when it came forward, but the decision on how to respond to the motion was taken by the Chief Whip, as the Secretary of State said, and the political side of the Government as a whole, not by civil servants.
Stephen Kinnock: Can you maybe just talk us through your thoughts, then, when you saw that motion and you realised that you were being asked, in essence, by the House on the basis of a binding and unanimously passed motion to provide to the Committee information that does not exist? Did you not find that to be a somewhat odd state of affairs?
Philip Rycroft: I found it a little odd, I have to say, Mr Kinnock. My initial thought was, “How do we provide information to the Committee that is useful”—so, “What process can we put in place that overcomes the fact that there are not those impact assessments but nevertheless assures the Committee that there are sectoral analyses that are thorough, full and competent, in order to meet the spirit of the humble Address?” That is the process that we embarked on.
Stephen Kinnock: I have a final question, just to dig in a little on this definition of what an impact assessment is, in your view as, obviously, a very highly experienced civil servant. I do not know the semantics of the Better Regulation Executive’s definition, which the Secretary of State just shared with us, but I would have thought that there would be a common‑sense, layman’s definition: it would need to be something that outlines the expected costs and benefits of a scenario, or a set of scenarios. That surely is the definition of “impact” and how you assess that impact. Would you agree with that? Could you share with the Committee how you would define what an impact assessment actually is?
Philip Rycroft: As you know, civil servants are creatures of guidance and of form, and there is a very formal definition of what an impact assessment is—rightly so, because those impact assessments inform the decisions that are taken in Parliament about legislation and regulation. The form that has been devised, guided by the Regulatory Policy Committee over time, has been honed to make sure that the information that Parliament receives at the moment it takes decisions on specific regulatory and legislative propositions is well informed by an understanding of the impact of those propositions.
I have here an extract from chapter 14 of the Cabinet Office’s legislative guidance. It does give quite a detailed technical description of what we think of as impact assessments. The issue we are dealing with as we are coming to the negotiation, of course, is that—as the Secretary of State, again, has said—there is a huge variety of variables, and when applying judgment to those in terms of informing the decisions that Ministers might take, the impact assessment methodology is not as useful in that context as it is when you are describing the cost‑benefits of a specific proposition that is to be decided on by Parliament. That is what guides the guidance, if you like, so when you ask civil servants about impact assessments, they immediately go to that guidance. It is just worth saying that there is an impact assessment of the withdrawal Bill, for example, and we are duty‑bound to do those impact assessments for all major, and indeed minor, legislative propositions.