General election round-up: Big plans, little detail ... plus breaking up the Home Office

Civil Service World looks at what the main parties have said this week – and the impact for the civil service
"Look, no rabbit!" – Keir Starmer launches the Labour Party Manifesto Photo: Labour Party/YouTube

By Jim Dunton

14 Jun 2024

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats unleashed their general election manifestos on a weary public this week, but the big ideas were not all accompanied by a detailed explanation of their impact for the nation's finances.

Tuesday saw prime minister Rishi Sunak's "Clear Plan; Bold Action; Secure Future" document unveiled. It features pledges to further reduce national insurance – and abolish the main rate for the self-employed by the end of the parliament; introduce a legal cap on migration that would reduce every year; and engage the so-called "triple lock plus" for pensions. That would guarantee state-pension payments never attract income tax.

Perhaps of most interest for civil servants is the inclusion of a commitment to reduce departmental and agency headcounts back to pre-pandemic levels – nominally to fund an increase in defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product by the end of the parliament.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures, which came out on the same day, showed headcount is at a near two-decade high of 511,000. So reducing it to 2019 levels would now mean axing 86,000 roles by Civil Service World's calculations.

Other pledges include "doubling" digital and artificial-intelligence expertise in the civil service, halving spending on external consultants, and moving an additional 25,000 civil-service roles away from the capital, building on the Places for Growth programme.

Independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies said the manifesto had introduced tax cuts in the region of £17bn to the financial landscape, yet failed to unpack the impact for departments. As of March's Spring Budget, the IFS said departments with unprotected budgets had already been facing belt-tightening in the order of £10bn-£20bn.

IFS director Paul Johnson said the Conservative Party manifesto was peppered with "definite giveaways paid for by uncertain, unspecific and apparently victimless savings".

(No) surprise, surprise

Predictably, the Labour Party's manifesto is titled "Change" and equally predictably it contains nothing that could be remotely considered a surprise. Party leader Sir Keir Starmer revelled in the lack of a policy "rabbit" to pull out of the hat at the document's launch on Thursday.

Among the already-announced plans that "Change" includes are a 5,000-strong headcount boost for HM Revenue and Customs and the creation of a new border-security command with “hundreds of new investigators, intelligence officers and cross-border police officers".

HMRC's staffing influx is designed to drive a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion that will generate an additional £5bn in receipts by the end of the next parliament. However the cost of the initiative appears to have gone up since the plans were first floated in April.

Back then, the "Labour's Plan to Close the Tax Gap" document said the measures would cost £555m a year. The manifesto gives a cost of £855m.

According to the manifesto, setting up the border-security command will be paid for by scrapping the Conservative government's hugely controversial scheme to deport some categories of asylum seeker to Rwanda for processing and resettlement.

Other previously-announced plans include halving government consultancy spending; merging the Department for Work and Pensions’ Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Education’s National Careers Service; creating a new publicly-owned power company, Great British Energy; and forming a new Regulatory Innovation Office.

On the NHS, Labour has pledged to cut waiting times by offering 40,000 more appointments every week; double the number of cancer scanners; hire 8,500 extra mental-health staff; and deliver a "dentistry rescue plan".

Labour would also establish a new Council of the Nations and Regions, which would bring together the prime minister, first ministers of Scotland and Wales, the first and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, and the mayors of combined authorities.

An IFS analysis of the measures in "Change" suggested they would stretch the nation's finances less than the Conservatives' plans, with cuts of £6bn-£16bn for unprotected departments by 2028-29.

Johnson said Labour's “big promises” on the NHS would "require big spending”. But he said the party's commitments to have debt falling within five years, not increase rates of income tax, National Insurance, VAT and corporation tax “leaves literally no room" for any more spending on the NHS than what is planned by the current government.

Packing pledges

While the Liberal Democrats' "For a Fair Deal" manifesto falls 19 pages short of Labour's offer, it seems to pack more pledges –  a definite luxury afforded to politicians pointedly not on the brink of seizing the keys to 10 Downing Street.

The document promises to "shift power out of the centre in Westminster and Whitehall" in favour of community-level decision-making. Higher standards will also be demanded from ministers by enshrining the ministerial code in law.

The Lib Dems pledge to end the "scandal of government by WhatsApp" by requiring all ministers’ instant-messaging conversations involving government business to be placed on the relevant departmental record. Additionally, a record of all lobbying of ministers via instant messages, emails, letters and phone calls will be published in quarterly transparency releases.

One particularly big-ticket policy included in the manifesto relates to social care. It would see the introduction of free personal care on the model introduced in Scotland in 2002, with provision based on need, not the ability to pay.

The Lib Dems would also create a social care workforce plan, establish a Royal College of Care Workers, and introduce a "carer’s minimum wage". The party previously said the carer's minimum wage would have a premium of at least £2 an hour on the national minimum wage.

Change could also be coming on pay for other categories of worker. The Lib Dems are proposing to set up an independent review to recommend a genuine living wage across all sectors, "with government departments and all other public sector employers taking a leading role in paying it". The party subsequently told CSW there would be no blanket requirement on public-sector bodies to pay the "genuine living wage", however.

Elsewhere, the manifesto contains previously-trailed plans to increase resourcing for HMRC to close the tax gap; increase GP numbers by 8,000; turn privatised water companies into "public benefit companies" as part of efforts to end the sewage scandal; and review the decision to scrap parts of HS2.

IFS director Johnson said the Lib-Dems' plans contained tax measures designed to raise £27bn, some of which were an "economically bad idea", such as taxing share buybacks.

Johnson said the "vast majority" of the Lib Dems' proposed spending was targeted at health, education and defence, as well as increases in the social-security budget.

"This would still leave unprotected departments – including prisons, courts and local government – attempting to deliver billions more in cuts to their already-shaky services," he said.

Going Green

Staff at the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice can expect significant machinery of government changes if the Green Party seizes power after the general election.

One of the pledges in its "Real Hope. Real Change" manifesto is a push to "dismantle the dysfunctional Home Office and create a new Department of Migration alongside a Department of Justice".

The manifesto says the move would separate functions around migration and citizenship from the criminal justice system.

Civil Service World asked the party what its plans would be for the existing Ministry of Justice – and whether the result of its proposals would be a merged Home Office and MoJ with the new migration department as a standalone entity.

Despite being given 24 hours to provide more information, the Green Party had not done so at the time of publication.

Reform and the civil service

New Reform leader Nigel Farage's much repeated pitch is that his party will be the real opposition in the UK after 4 July's vote, not what he predicts will be a roundly defeated Conservative Party.

The party has yet to publish an election manifesto, but has revealed some draft policies. One proposes banking savings of £50bn a year from the budgets of departments and other civil service organisations.

Last Sunday, former BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg quizzed Farage about where the cuts to deliver such savings would fall.

"It's not about cutting services, it's about making them more efficient," Farage answered. "It's about the National Health Service not swallowing up huge amounts of money in diversity training and things like this. We want to live in a country where everybody is treated equally."

He added that raising the tax threshold to £20,000 would result in "a lot of civil servants that we can get rid of". He did not elaborate.

"The inheritance tax threshold should be raised to £2m," Farage said. "We will go on with other areas like that – mass simplification of the tax system, which will bring us enormous savings."

Tax row rolls on

The appearance of party manifestos seemed to quieten last week's row about the Conservative Party's claims that "independent" civil servants had costed Labour Party policies and households across the UK would face a £2,000 tax hike under a Starmer government.

Nevertheless, Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden still attempted to use a letter from cabinet secretary Simon Case to suggest that new evidence of Labour Party chicanery had emerged over the claims – which were the result of the "opposition costings" system.

Holden's plan may have been successful for anyone who didn't read the letter. But those who did found Case confirming that not all of the figures supporting the £2,000 claim had been generated by civil servants.

Case added that even those costings which had been the work of civil servants were "produced on assumptions provided by special advisers on behalf of ministers".

Like the Brexit bus before it, the tax row still has fuel in the tank.

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