The Civil Service needs to reform, but this crude approach to job cuts will only lead to poorer governance and public services
“Why do you think the British public has fallen out of love with the Civil Service?”
This was the question put to me in an interview on LBC following the Prime Minister’s announcement of 91,000 job cuts to the Civil Service over the next three years.
I say “announcement” but it was in fact a briefing to the Daily Mail. Senior civil servants had to write to their staff apologising for this being the first time that they had heard about it.
My response to the question at the time wasn’t great, but on reflection I think the real question is why this government has so fallen out of love with civil servants that they are content to treat them in such a cavalier fashion?
The vast bulk of civil servants are not located in Whitehall advising ministers, but spread across the country delivering essential public services such as collecting taxes, helping people into jobs and paying benefits, running prisons, and issuing passports and drivers licenses. Between 2010 and 2016, in what we now call the austerity years, Civil Service numbers fell by nearly a fifth to their lowest level since the Second World War. Post the EU referendum the numbers started to rise again and continued to rise further to help respond to pandemic. The proposed cuts would reduce them by a fifth again, back to 2016 levels.
This raises obvious questions. How do we know the 2016 figure was the right one? Have the demands of Brexit and Covid gone away? Where will cuts fall and what investment needs to be made to ensure they are properly delivered? Most importantly of all, how do the cuts sit with the urgent need for recovering our public services and tackling the enormous backlogs that have built up during the pandemic? To none of these questions have we been given convincing answers. These are questions that need to be pursued through the select committees in Parliament.
It is not hard to see why ministerial attitudes towards the Civil Service are as they are
However, to consider the announcement in this way may be looking for a rationality that does not exist. It could simply be seen as another headline-grabbing announcement by a populist government to distract from their unpopularity and the cost of living crisis: “a headline a day keeps the Mail at bay”.
This is clearly part of the explanation, but I think the reasons go deeper. Many ministers and backbench Conservative MPs have not forgiven the Civil Service for their perceived role during Brexit. In reality, the challenges to delivering Brexit were to do with the deep divisions in Parliament, the country and indeed the Conservative party itself – but the Civil Service is held to be partly if not wholly responsible.
The serious backlogs that have built up in areas, such as issuing passports, driving licenses and the criminal justice system, have provoked a strong public reaction. In many ministers eyes, the responsibility lies with civil servants and the practice of working from home. They have not enjoyed working in near-empty offices and suspect that civil servants working from home are not really working at all.
Add in a small state ideology and an instinctive scepticism about the efficiency of the public sector generally, it is not hard to see why ministerial attitudes towards the Civil Service are as they are.
To state the obvious, there is always room for improvement in the Civil Service. Well managed investment in digital technology, devolving to local government, better training and support are all ways to deliver more for less. To achieve this requires a mature, planned approach working with staff, not in opposition to them.
The real irony here is that the best of the private sector recognises that we are in a battle for people and talent. They are focused on recruiting and retaining staff – not shedding them. The government is doing the opposite and moving in the wrong direction. We will all feel the consequences in the quality of our governance and services.
Lord Kerslake is a crossbench peer and former head of the civil service.
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