Ex-cabinet minister accuses civil service of protecting own interests as he backs reform

Written by Eleanor Langford and Richard Johnstone on 14 January 2020 in News
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Two-time minister Liam Fox says government should go ahead with DfID-FCO merger, but DIT should be saved

Liam Fox when international trade secretary. Photo: PA

Boris Johnson will need to slaughter the civil service's "sacred cows" to succeed in radically reshaping Whitehall, according to former cabinet minister Liam Fox.

Fox said the prime minister – whose top adviser Dominic Cummings is considering a string of changes to the civil service's structure and working culture – should ignore "self-interest" from officials he said may resistant to change.

In a wide-ranging speech at the Institute for Government on getting Whitehall getting ready for Brexit, the former international trade secretary called on No.10 to stick to plans to close the Department for International Development to givethe government a “clear voice” on international issues after Brexit.


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It has been reported that plans to merge DfID back into the Foreign Office have been abandoned, despite Johnson’s previous backing for the proposal.

However, several machinery of government changes are planned for after the UK leaves the European Union at the end of this month. It has already been announced that the Department for Exiting the European Union will close on 31 January, and other possible changes include re-establishing a climate change department and merging the Department for International Trade with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

They form part of what is likely to be a series of Whitehall changes, with Cummings saying government HR rules "obviously need a bonfire”.

Echoing the prime minister's own rhetoric about culling wasteful projects, Fox told the IfG this morning: “With a new government in place with a strong mandate at such a key moment in our history, this is the time to slaughter the sacred cows to which successive governments have given a last-minute reprieve in order to buy political peace.”

The former cabinet minister – who left government when Johnson entered No.10 – said the debate over Brexit was now “over” and urged ministers to “update our civil service in response”.

He added: "We need to ensure that we speak with a clear voice on the issues that really matter, with a single foreign policy and a strong overseas network to further our diplomatic aims and take advantage of the opportunities that will come with changing patterns of global trade.

“We need Whitehall structures designed for our post-EU future and a civil service that is able to wean itself quickly away from two generations of Eurocentricity.”

Backing plans to merge DfID with the Foreign Office, Fox said: "In each of these scenarios there will be warnings aplenty that machinery of government changes will divert civil service energy at a time when they need to be completing the Brexit settlement.

“The sublime irony is, of course, that this advice will be coming from many of the very same people who sought to thwart Brexit itself.

“It is true that machinery of government changes can be diversionary, but this is also the time for significant internal change to match the scale of the external challenge.

“With a new government elected, with a strong majority, in a Britain about to abandon some of the institutions to which it has been shackled for the last 40 years, this is no time to give undue weight to traditional self-interest.”

However, Fox seemed to stop short of recommending that his former ministry, DIT, should also be subsumed into the Foreign Office, instead calling for it to be built up to undertake multiple trade negotiations. The department is set to play a role in the UK’s negotiations with the EU over future trade talks once DExEU closes, while talks are also planned with the United States and Japan.

Fox said that despite civil servants thinking an agreement on the UK's future relationship with the EU should come first, undertaking the talks in parallel would be better.

The two-time cabinet minister, who resigned for breaking the ministerial code by letting his friend Adam Werritty into meetings when he was defence secretary, also set out some thoughts on civil service reform.

He said that he favoured bringing more political appointments into ministerial private offices should not be considered “heresy”, but that impartial civil servants should remain throughout the rest of the system.

Fox's call comes after charities and Conservative former aid ministers urged Boris Johnson not to axe DfID. Ex-international development secretary Andrew Mitchell wrote for CSW that scrapping the ministry would “destroy the most highly respected and effective international development organisation in the world, since the very specialist and talented people who run it will quickly be poached by International organisations and bodies”.

Unions have reacted frostily to the plans for civil service reform.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said “it’s clear the prime minister’s aides don’t fully understand the modern realities of the civil service or, indeed, the impact of a decade of pay stagnation” that caused people to move jobs more frequently.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary or Prospect, said the union was up for a debate on civil service reform, but added “let's also talk about pay and resourcing and how we build the public services citizens want and deserve”.

The PCS union said it would "strenuously" oppose changes to its hiring and performance rules.

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Eleanor Langford and Richard Johnstone
About the author

Eleanor Langford is a reporter for PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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