Civil servants could get military-style training at Sandhurst, PM says

Boris Johnson also calls free school meals parcels a "disgrace" at Liaison Committee session
Boris Johnson speaking to the Liaison Committee yesterday. Screenshot: ParliamentTV

Civil servants could undergo military-style training at Sandhurst in future, the prime minister has said.

Boris Johnson told MPs on parliament’s Liaison Committee yesterday that the government was considering offering “formal training” for officials at the military academy, as part of its promise to upskill the civil service.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said earlier this year that he planned to introduce a “properly resourced campus for training people in government”. Asked if this was now government policy, Johnson said: “Yes, it is”.

“There used to be an operation at Sunningdale,” he said, referring to the former Civil Service College that was sold off for retirement housing last year.

“We are looking at having a campus, it might be that we fund it with the military and that we do something at Sandhurst, where there are fantastic facilities. 

“My strong feeling… is that we have an amazing civil service, they’ve done an amazing job throughout this incredibly difficult time, but formal training… there is a merit in training for our civil servants and we’re certainly looking at that.”

He said MPs could expect an announcement “as soon as there is something for you to properly scrutinise”.

Free school meals packs 'a scandal and a disgrace'

During the wide-ranging session yesterday, MPs also demanded answers about the provision of food boxes for children who are eligible for free school meals, which have been at the centre of a row this week.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said yesterday that he was “absolutely disgusted” by photos that had emerged of food packs given to parents, which showed inadequate amounts of food to provide lunches for a week, as well as food that had been divided up and repackaged poorly.

“It is a scandal and a disgrace that some companies are trying to get away with the provision that they’re offering,” Johnson said.

“You’re right to be outraged by the images that we’ve seen and the companies – certainly the company responsible for the most notorious pictures and others – have been hauled over the coals and asked to explain how this has happened, they’ve apologised and they have reimbursed the schools and pledged not to do this again,” he said.

“I should stress that the images did not reflect the actual government guidance, which is for about double the quantity of food for lunch packs that you’ve seen, if not more.”

However, he made no suggestion that the companies would face any penalties for their failures, and did not explain how the government would ensure outsourcers change their behaviour.

He also did not name any specific companies, despite Williamson’s insistence this week that DfE would “name and shame” contractors who did not meet acceptable standards.

Johnson said the government would begin offering food vouchers again next week – a move announced following the outcry over the food packages, backed by footballer Marcus Rashford – and that it would be for schools to decide how best to feed children.

Coronavirus response under scrutiny

The prime minister also faced a range of questions related to the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Universal Credit payments were increased last year to reflect the additional hardship many people were facing amid the pandemic, but the extra funds will be cut in April unless the chancellor decides otherwise in his springtime Budget.

Asked whether it was fair to make people wait until March to find out if their benefits would be cut a month later, Johnson said: "I think that what we want to see is jobs. We want to see people in employment, we want to see the economy bouncing back and most people in this country would rather see a focus on jobs and growth in wages than a focus on welfare, but clearly we have to keep all these things under review."

Responding to a question about rising food bank use during the pandemic, he said "in an ideal world, people would be able to have absolute confidence in getting what they need from their weekly shop".

"That’s why we’re focusing so much on things like the living wage, increasing pay wherever we can [including] increases in pay for a million key workers this year and doing everything that we can for the poorest and neediest," he said.

Last year's Spending Review confirmed that “over one million” NHS workers would receive pay rises, the level of which would reflect “challenging fiscal and economic context”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak used the review to announce a pay freeze for most other public servants, including civil servants, saying it would be "unfair" to increase wages while private-sector pay was falling.

The prime minister did respond positively to questions about data the government is publishing about the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

Responding to criticism that the figures showing how many people have been vaccinated to date are not detailed enough to enable scrutiny of the programme, Johnson said the government would begin publishing regional breakdowns of vaccination numbers “later this week”.

“We want to be as transparent as we possibly can about the number of vaccinations delivered," he said.

But despite saying he wanted to release “as much data as we can”, Johnson did not commit to releasing local authority-level figures, or data on how much of the vaccine has been wasted. He did cite the potential for waste as one reason for not using community pharmacies to administer the vaccine at this point while supply is constrained.

'Hold your horses' on integrated review

MPs pressed Johnson to commit to publishing the government’s plans for reforming both defence and social care.

But elsewhere, he suggested the publication of the government’s integrated review of foreign, defence and international development policy could be delayed again. Asked by committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin if he could confirm the review would be published in February he said: “I’ve got to hold your horses there, it won’t be as soon as that. That’s a little bit premature.”

His answer appears to contradict defence secretary Ben Wallace's comments earlier this week that the "current target" is to publish the review within the first two weeks of February.

The review was originally slated for publication last autumn, but was delayed after work on it was paused because of the pandemic.

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