The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.

Civil Service Reform (16)

Civil Service Reform took a back seat following the June 2016 Brexit referendum, but there was some interesting comment etc. over the subsequent months and years.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee began an inquiry into 'The Work of the Civil Service'. Ex-Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin submitted sharply worded evidence in February 2017, complaining about 'deficiencies of training and culture' leading to poor work authorised by senior officials who had been promoted because of their 'willingness to play the game' rather than on merit. The full text of Mr Letwin's evidence is here.

In parallel, the uneven consequences of 'across the board' austerity were increasingly evidenced in the form of problems at the front line, most particularly in the Health and Social Care sectors. Ex-Permanent Secretary Leigh Lewis described the process all to accurately in this extract from a longer article in Civil Service World:

In the run up to the Budget it was widely reported that the chancellor had asked all but the "protected" departments to come up with proposals for a further reduction of £3.5bn in spending by the end of the current Parliament. Unless the world has changed utterly since my own time in government, a ritual process will have taken place. To parody only a little, the Treasury will have told each affected department what its ‘share’ of these cuts needs to be. Departments will have responded by describing the likely impact of such cuts, painting a picture of death, disaster and mayhem. The Treasury – inured by decades of listening to such protests – will have ignored the protestations and demanded the number it first thought of. Last minute political haggling – and even, in some cases, threats of resignation – may have secured some alleviation, but not much. And the previously warring ministers – once the spending figures have been announced – will have assured the public that the cuts, while challenging, can undoubtedly be delivered through greater efficiency. And sometimes they can.

But not always. Take the Prison Service as perhaps the most glaring example of this macabre dance in recent years. Between 2010/11 and 2014/15 the Prison Service budget was reduced by around a quarter – approaching £1bn – at a time when prisoner numbers remained at an all-time high of around 86,000. Over the same period, prison officer numbers fell by around 9,500 – nearly 30%. At Pentonville prison – to give one example of the impact of these cuts at local level – it has been reported that officer numbers fell from 280 to 211 between 2013 and 2016, while at Holloway the reported reduction was from 150 to 121 over the same period. The effect of these reductions is now clear; serious outbreaks of disorder, increasing drug and substance abuse and, potentially most serious of all, a collapse of prison officer morale to name but three.

Finally, faced with increasingly lurid and public examples of each, the government has responded by restoring some of the cuts in Prison Officer numbers and implementing unilateral pay increases for Prison Officers in the areas of greatest shortage in what has looked extremely close to a panic reaction. Predictably, the media and the opposition have piled in to attack the government for its incompetence. But the truth is that all governments in recent decades have been guilty of imposing similar examples of short-sighted reductions. Indeed the current crisis in social care is arguably the result of every government over the last thirty years acting with similar irresponsibility.


Martin Stanley