Departments will have to fight to keep big in-house comms teams in shake-up

Union says it has been warned a voluntary redundancy scheme is part of ministers' plans for centralised media service
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By Jim Dunton

18 Mar 2021

Government departments will be forced to “make a case” for maintaining larger communications teams under proposals for the creation of a centralised media service for the whole of Whitehall, the civil service’s biggest union has said.

PCS said it had been briefed that there would be “cuts in staffing” in every department and that alongside controlling recruitment and redeploying staff “there might be a voluntary redundancy scheme” as part of the comms shake-up, which was formally confirmed in July.

The union said the briefing had been given ahead of a meeting on the proposals today that is expected to mark the start of “substantive consultations” over the outline business plan for the project.

PCS said ministers were aiming to finalise the structure and operating model for the new Government Communication Service by the end of June this year and that “structural changes” to implement it were due to be completed by April next year.

It said groundwork for the centralised service’s creation had identified that around 7,000 staff worked in communications across the UK civil service and arm’s-length bodies, and that that annual comms spend was £750m.

PCS said that while departments would not have to surrender all communications staff to the new centralised unit, they would have to “make a case for staffing beyond ‘core’ numbers” and that 30 was the core figure that had been used in previous meetings.

The “maximum” figure of 30 comms staff per department was also briefed when plans for the comms shake-up were confirmed last summer. The confirmation said four new director-general posts would be created in the Cabinet Office to line-manage the new centralised team.

A crunch of official civil service statistics conducted by trade magazine PR Week last year found the Ministry of Defence had 540 staff with a comms role, the largest figure for any department.

It said the Ministry of Justice was in second place with 250 staff described as having a communications function; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was next with 240; the Department for Education had 200; and the Home Office had 190.

A December update from the Government Communication Service on the Reshaping GCS programme said the reforms would result in “a smaller, more unified profession with departmental core teams of 30 to cover press, social and rebuttal”.

The update said comms staff “should not expect to see any substantial changes in headcount in their teams until the second half of [2021] at the earliest”.

PCS has consistently argued that the communications shake-up must not lead to job losses or redundancies and said it had “reiterated” the point ahead of today’s talks.

When the restructuring proposals were announced, the union warned the move would “hand unprecedented control to No.10, and lead to mass job losses”.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman agreed that in combination with central control of special advisers, the move would further diminish the role of ministers.

“This is a dramatic curtailment of the power of departments and their ministers to control their own communications,” he said.

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