Rishi Sunak's civil service reform plans – the PM's pledges revisited

We recap Sunak's leadership campaign promises, including cutting 'back-office' jobs, spending cuts and getting civil servants to spend more time in the private sector
Rishi Sunak. Photo: UPI/lamy

By Tevye Markson

25 Oct 2022

In a whirlwind 16 weeks, Rishi Sunak has quit as chancellor and led calls for Boris Johnson’s resignation; lost out to Liz Truss to replace him; and been appointed prime minister by his fellow MPs after Truss was herself forced out of the job.

Sunak's first speech as prime minister-elect shone little light on how – if at all – the details of his approach to leading government has changed since the summer leadership race. There were no public debates in the short-lived contest, which was decided by MPs and left Sunak as the sole candidate after his rivals Johnson and Penny Mordaunt dropped out.

Much has changed during Truss's 44-day stint as PM, which caused economic turmoil with a bonanza of unfunded tax cuts before a series of U-turns that left her authority in tatters.

However, Sunak's summer leadership gives us some idea of the approach he is likely to take. Here, we revisit the pledges he made.

Giving civil servants 'real-world' expertise

Sunak unveiled a series of proposals to reform the civil service over the summer, which included introducing a form of performance-related pay to end the “unnecessary” churn of staff who move from department to department.

He said he would “tackle civil service groupthink and deepen departments’ understanding of business" by making a year of secondments or private-sector placements a condition of promotion for senior civil servants.

His other proposals to increase "real-world business” private-sector expertise in the civil service included expanding the use of private ministerial offices.

Job cuts, reforming the Fast Stream and regional diversity

Sunak pledged to go ahead with Boris Johnson’s proposal to cut tens of thousands of jobs, but said he sould focus on “back office jobs”– a term he declined to define. 

“As chancellor I saw parts of the British civil service at its best, delivering world-class Covid support schemes in record time. But the bloated post-Covid state is in need of a shake-up,” he said.

In a similar vein, he said would push forward with his efficiency review of arm’s-length bodies, which he launched in May as chancellor.

Sunak promised to reinstate the paused Fast Stream. He said he would reform it by mandating that a third of placements have an operations element, and creating assessment centres in every region of the UK.

He also suggested he would hire more civil service apprentices, who he said are more likely to be based outside London and from working-class backgrounds.

And he promised to continue the Places for Growth programme, which aims to move 22,000 jobs away from London by 2030.

'Sensible but unoriginal' or 'ill-thought-out rhetoric'?

The Institute for Government described Sunak's reform plans as “sensible, but often unoriginal”, with the civil service already working on plans for rewarding high performance and efforts to develop a pipeline of secondments from the civil service into the private sector “a goal for generations of reformers.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman called Sunak’s ideas “ill-thought-out rhetoric that doesn’t survive the first hour of scrutiny” and said the suggestion that "back-office staff" could be easily trimmed down showed he “doesn’t understand the basics of how the civil service operates”.

IfG senior research fellow and ex-civil servant Jill Rutter meanwhile called Sunak’s proposals “a package aimed at the civil service of the 1980s”.

Government cuts to fund energy relief

The former chancellor said he would use public spending cuts to fund energy support – including a £200 energy saving for every household in the UK and extra welfare payments.

“As I did at the start of the Ukraine crisis, I will drive a programme to identify savings across Whitehall,” he said.

“That may mean we have to stop or pause some things in government, because government is about tough choices. But we must find these savings because getting people through this winter has to be the first priority.”

He also said he would use the Energy Profits Levy he introduced as chancellor to fund the relief, as well as “some limited and temporary one-off borrowing as a last resort to get us through this winter”.

Since then, Truss has announced billions of pounds of support through the Energy Price Guarantee, which cuts typical household energy bills down to £2,500 on average per year. However, this support has now been shortened until only April, one of a series of U-turns since new chancellor Jeremy Hunt took over from Kwasi Kwarteng.

Rwanda and Prevent

Sunak also addressed two controversial policies: the Rwanda scheme, which aims to send some asylum seekers to the East African country for processing and resettlement; and the Home Office’s anti-radicalisation strategy Prevent.

The ex-chancellor vowed to do “whatever it takes to get our partnership with Rwanda off the ground”.

On Prevent, he said he wanted to “refocus the failing Prevent programme onto the UK’s most significant terror threat – Islamist extremism and widen the government’s definition of extremism to encompass those who vilify our country”.

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Outcome delivery plans suspended after job-cuts saga and Autumn Statement

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