Mon, 20 May 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
Press releases

Boris Johnson warned not to press ahead with 'distracting' Whitehall shake-up

4 min read

A major shake-up of Whitehall departments being considered by Boris Johnson could "waste both time and money", the Prime Minister has been warned.

Fresh from his election victory, the Tory leader is reportedly eyeing plans to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office. 

A new Department for Borders and Immigration is also on the cards, and the Department for International Trade could be folded into the Department for Business in a bid to lead Britain's post-Brexit trade deals.

The climate change brief could also be spun back out of the business department in a bid to prove the new government's green credentials. 

The Prime Minister's top adviser, Dominic Cummings, has previously been highly critical of the civil service, calling for changes to its hire-and-fire rules and management culture.

But Dave Penman of the FDA trade union, which represents senior government officials, warned: "Transformative government is delivered through policy, not reorganisation."

He added: "Whilst the temptation from every new government is to demonstrate their reforming zeal by reorganising Whitehall, this can often be a distraction and waste both time and money as civil servants merge or split departments, rather than simply getting on with the job in hand.

"Government departments, many of whom employ thousands of staff, are all separate employers with their own pay and grading structures. Putting these together alongside IT and back office functions takes time and resource.

"It’s never a short-term fix and only works if it’s supported by a clear policy focus and is embedded for the longer term.

"Civil servants are there to deliver the new government’s policy objectives and the prime minister needs to ensure that they are delivering key public services, rather than being distracted by the bureaucracy of major reorganisational change."

Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell - the first Conservative to run the Department - meanwhile urged the Prime Minister not to press ahead with his plan to merge it with the Foreign Office.

"DFID is the most effective and respected engine of development anywhere in the world, and a huge soft power asset for Britain," he said.

"Any machinery of government changes in Whitehall should obviously respect Britain’s international development in the poorest and most unstable parts of the world. 

"Tackling insecurity and building prosperity directly affects our well being in the UK. British leadership in this area is a core part of Global Britain."

That view was echoed by former Foreign Office and DfID minister Alistair Burt, who told a conference in Doha: "My advice would be not to merge DfID and the FCO. DfID as a standalone department has given the UK an outstanding reputation. It runs very well. 

"It has learned very well over the years the rules about how to handle its aid budget. It is conscious of the risk presented in delivering such a large aid budget. But its thought leadership and the individuals that come from that department has been done well."


The warnings came as The Times reported that Mr Cummings is set to press ahead with a radical overhaul of the way the Ministry of Defence spends its money, in a move that could place him on a collision course with military chiefs.

The Number 10 adviser has previously described the MoD's multi-billion pound procurement spending as "disastrous".

But a defence insider told the paper: "We have an early 20th-century system for a 21st-century world. It requires review, but that should be carried out by people with expertise in procurement rather than in politics.”

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak on Sunday remained tight-lipped when pressed on whether the Prime Minister wants to implement a raft of changes in Whitehall.

"I think what people watching will not be interested in the process of government," the Cabinet minister told Sky News.

"What they want to know is that government’s going to deliver for them."

PoliticsHome Newsletters

PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Engineering a Better World

The Engineering a Better World podcast series from The House magazine and the IET is back for series two! New host Jonn Elledge discusses with parliamentarians and industry experts how technology and engineering can provide policy solutions to our changing world.

NEW SERIES - Listen now