FDA's Naomi Cooke: As more spending cuts loom, government needs to be honest about what it will no longer do

Opinion: The Spending Review calls for yet more cuts to departmental spending. But at what price?

By Naomi Cooke

08 Sep 2015

Death, taxes and budget cuts are the three certainties of life for those contemplating this year’s Spending Review. All parts of the public sector are seeking the most convincing arguments to present to the Chancellor to insulate their corner from the most severe effects of the Treasury scythe. 

In Whitehall (and other more exotic parts of the civil service), government departments are doing the same – at least, civil servants hope they are doing the same. In some areas there is a worrying feeling that being more radical with the savings promises will be beneficial (although beneficial to whom remains a mystery).

The reality is that civil service staffing numbers have fallen and will continue to fall. The use of contractors covers a multitude of sins and does not always convince those looking in that this is a prudent use of public money. Continual cuts to civil servants’ terms and conditions and pay "restraint" – which must now amount to a 25% real terms pay cut over the better part of the last decade – worsen morale and encourage many towards the exit. 

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Arguably more problematic, though, is the disincentive to new recruits. While some departments claim to have no issues in that area, what they do not reveal is the extent to which they have not been recruiting new starters at the bottom of the pay range where longer serving staff started (and, with the removal of progression, where many longer service staff have stayed). Instead, various labour market enhancements or "special arrangements" are accessed in order to offer incomers a remotely appealing salary.


All this is a pretty unedifying context for a Spending Review. Cuts are being called for and doubtless cuts will be imposed, but at what price? Signs are there that the continuing onslaught of directives from HM Treasury – on pay, exit packages, departmental budgets – might be causing more costly problems than are being generated in atomised budget reductions.

Departments need to look not just at the cost of what they do, but the quality as well. Is it feasible to cut ever more staff without services suffering? The FDA union does not think that this approach can continue. If departments are to make cuts there needs to be a realistic discussion about which work no longer needs to be done and what quality of service provision to the public is acceptable. 

How quickly should HMRC respond to queries – within hours, days, weeks or months? How many cases should one crown prosecutor run at a time – 50, 100, 150? How many schools should a schools inspector visit in a week – one, five, 10? These are the sorts of questions departments need to answer before they make their case to the Treasury. 

"Excessive hours culture"

Looking at a spreadsheet and subtracting 25% or 40% may satisfy the Treasury, but it is not good enough for the public. Departments, and their ministers, need to be clear about what is not going to be done as budgets are reduced. Civil servants are dropping in number and working ever more unpaid overtime. This isn’t a long-term solution and it is indicative of the ever-increasing pressure being put on the workforce. While the NHS looks at positive interventions to improve the health of its staff, the civil service looks to harden up its rules on sickness absence and turns a blind-eye to an excessive hours culture.

The civil service is finding, and will continue to find, that it cannot deliver everything. Cut too many staff and any blip in demand will send a service into meltdown. Civil servants are qualified, trained professionals. They invest in the civil service and the civil service invests in them. If departments make cuts without working out how to deliver their obligations they will end up begging leavers to return – and at what cost? 

Matching demand to resources is key in any organisation and the significant size of the civil service doesn’t make that any less true. What the FDA is looking for in this spending review is a bit of realism. If more cuts are to be made, which parts of the civil service workload are to stop happening?

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