David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
Government Ministers want to reduce the size of the civil service. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for Government Efficiency, has let it be known that he wants to reduce the civil service headcount by approximately 90,000 which would be a fall of 20 per cent and return the numbers to the levels of 2016. Sky News reported on Friday that departments have been asked to model headcount reductions of 20, 30 and 40 per cent.
There is plenty of politics in these announcements and I will get to that in a moment. There are also a large number of practical challenges which are worth highlighting. Having served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury as well as being the Minister responsible or relevant for the three biggest employers of civil servants (at the Department of Work and Pensions, HMRC and the Ministry of Justice), I have a few thoughts on that.
Before turning to those issues, however, it is worth acknowledging that seeking to ensure that public money is spent wisely and that public services are delivered efficiently is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to seek to do this. We spend taxpayers’ money on public services in order to serve the public. This requires the employment of public servants, but the employment of public servants is incidental to the Government’s purposes, it is not an objective in itself. This is an obvious point, but I can remember at least one meeting with civil service staff where this point had been lost.
Governments should seek to achieve more for less and, if it is possible, to deliver satisfactory public services whilst employing fewer people. This can result in savings for the taxpayer and release workers to make a contribution elsewhere in the economy. Jobs are a cost not a benefit.
Some will argue that reducing headcount results in a deterioration in public services. That is not inevitably so. To take HMRC, for example, this is a department that has grown in confidence and capability over the last twelve years at a time when the number of employees has fallen.
The reason it has been able to do this is that it has embraced technology which means that many clerical tasks which once had to be undertaken manually have been automated, whilst its sophisticated use of data has enabled it to deploy its skilled workforce more efficiently, significantly reducing the tax gap. But this does not mean that the plan to reduce numbers by 90,000 is realistic.
It is worth analysing why civil service numbers have increased over the last six years and well worth looking at a paper by the Institute for Government on the topic.
The principal reason is that we have wanted the civil service to do more things. The obvious example of this is Brexit. We have returned certain responsibilities to the UK Government from the European Union, and we need to employ people to fulfil those responsibilities. We previously did not have (or need) a Department for International Trade; now we have one employing 2,000 people. We have increased the number of policy staff in the Environment and Culture departments because there is now more policy that needs to be done here. We also have new operational requirements, such as operating a new customs border with the EU, which will require civil servants to operate.
The employment of a few thousand extra civil servants as a consequence of leaving the EU is not a killer argument against Brexit (there are better arguments, but let us leave that for another day). However, it is an undeniable consequence and it cannot be dismissed, nor is it just temporary. If policy for some matters is permanently going to be located in the UK, then we permanently need to maintain policy capability here.
There are other policy objectives that have risen up the political agenda. Levelling-up – ensuring that prosperity is more equally shared across the country (I think that is what it roughly means) – will not be achieved without a vast effort. This will require people – civil servants – to be employed to make the vast effort.
In some cases, the Government has observed what civil servants are doing and concluded that we would like more of it. Let us take DWP’s work coaches who provide holistic support for those looking to get into employment. Successive Work & Pensions Secretaries have been impressed by the contribution they have made to turning people’s lives round, solving problems ‘upstream’ and contributing to low levels of unemployment. So the number of work coaches has been expanded. For a Government that believes that work is the best way out of poverty, it would be very odd to reverse this.
Of course, some of the additional tasks have been pandemic-related and there are saving to be made. But Covid also raises questions about our overall resilience to future public health emergencies which will have ongoing implications for staffing.
Looking at the public sector as a whole, the Government has clearly concluded that job cuts went too far in some areas over the ‘austerity years’, hence the pledge to recruit 20,000 more police officers. If our intention is to reduce crime, there are other (arguably better) examples of where numbers fell by too much after 2010. The Government is rightly committed to offender rehabilitation. This means we need more probation officers. Probation officers, like work coaches and customs officers, are civil servants. As are those who work in DVLA, the Passport Office and the Courts where there are backlogs and delays that need to be addressed.
There is also something odd about a process which requires departments to come forward now with proposals which in aggregate sees a 90,000 headcount reduction. It is right that spending departments, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office work together to ensure that strategic and bold thinking is undertaken to identify possible savings, including by deprioritising some activities and identifying opportunities for automation. The problem is that there is a time at which this should happen – at the point at which the Comprehensive Spending Review is being determined – and that happened only seven months ago alongside the 2021 Budget.
At the time of the CSR, the Government set out plans which implied a reduction to the civil service headcount of 28,500. This, presumably, was part of the discussions within Government and provided a key assumption in the departmental spending settlements. Now, we have new numbers and a new process is being commenced. Spending departments are entitled to ask what is going on. Is the CSR being reopened or not?
The suspicion is that this is driven by political considerations as part of a desire to be more ‘ideologically Conservative’, appealing to those who think that civil servants are lazy and useless and spend all their time watching daytime television whilst claiming to be working from home.
Putting aside the unfairness of this observation (most current and former ministers would, I suspect, speak highly of the professionalism of the civil service), it is not an attitude that is likely to bring out the best from those upon whom the Government depends to get things done. Nor is it coherent with the big state conservatism that contributed to the 2019 general election victory.
Squeezing greater efficiency from the civil service is to be welcomed but I fear that these proposals have all too familiar characteristics – unrealistically optimistic, politically motivated and ideologically incoherent.