General election round-up: Sunak fires starting gun

In a new weekly series, Civil Service World reviews battleground policy areas as the campaign gets under way – and examines what each party's pledges could mean for the civil service
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer

By Jim Dunton

24 May 2024

Less than 48 hours after prime minister Rishi Sunak fired the starting gun on the general election, it's clear that the outcome of July 4's vote will have a huge impact on the civil service, and be markedly different depending on who wins.

Over the coming weeks, Civil Service World will be supporting officials to prepare for the future with a regular round-up of government and public-service related announcements from the campaign, and closely scrutinising the main parties' manifesto pledges.

Standing outside No.10 in the pouring rain on Wednesday evening, Sunak made direct reference to defence in his election announcement, a nod to last month's proposals to increase spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product by 2030.

While Sunak described the plan as "fully funded", the issue is a controversial one. The plans, as set out in April, rely on savings from civil-service headcount cuts over the period that neither the Institute for Fiscal Studies nor the Institute for Government said were credible.

Labour supports increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP but has not set a timescale, while party sources were cool on the idea of civil service job cuts as a way to fund the move.

On Wednesday the PM also referenced the current government's plans to fly some categories of asylum seeker to Rwanda for processing and resettlement as a deterrent to the phenomenon of small-boat migration across the English Channel. The plans that have yet to result in a single forced deportation.

Labour has called the plan a gimmick that will be scrapped in favour of investing in a new Border Security Command with "hundreds of new specialist investigators and counter-terror powers" to stop criminal gangs profiting from cross-Channel migration.

Elsewhere, the campaign trail is likely to see measures to drive public-sector productivity feature frequently.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt used his Spring Budget in March to emphasise the extent to which a future Conservative government will look to boosting public-sector productivity to bridge the significant gap between projected budget increases and spending needs over the coming years.

Departmental headcount reductions, increased use of artificial intelligence, technology upgrades, and invest-to-save proposals were prominent features in March's Red Book.

Last month, Labour Party shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves launched proposals to boost the headcount of HM Revenue and Customs by 5,000 for a crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion expected to save £5.1bn a year for the national coffers by the end of the next parliament.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer chose to deliver his resonse to the election announcement indoors. Notably drier than Sunak, but also less animated, Starmer referenced the party's plans to create the Border Security Command; establish Great British Energy; hire more teachers; and reduce NHS waiting lists.

According to the party, Great British Energy will be a publicly-owned clean-power company tasked with delivering cheaper power for the nation, paid for by a windfall tax on large oil and gas companies. Labour said the company will be headquartered in Scotland and "ensure" jobs and supply chains for clean-energy industries are built in the UK.

A series of policy pledges unveiled last week included hiring 6,500 additional teachers, paid for by removing tax breaks for private schools.

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Home Office NDPB offers £120k for first police-productivity tsar

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