A former permanent secretary who led the department overseeing Brexit preparations for two years has warned that cutting civil service numbers back to pre-Brexit levels “without a vision” could lead to the government providing a poorer public service in all areas.
The prime minister announced last week in the Mail plans to cut 91,000 jobs from the civil service in the next three years – a 20% reduction. Ministers have said the cuts are to return the workforce to pre-2016 levels, after numbers swelled to take on the “temporary” extra responsibilities associated with Brexit and the pandemic.
But Philip Rycroft, who led the Department for Exiting the European Union from 2017 to 2019, said the government had taken on a number of new responsibilities in the last six years as a result of Brexit. “You need people to [carry] out those responsibilities,” he said.
“If you want to go back to the 2016 numbers, that will require some very careful thought about what civil servants are doing, why they are doing it, how they relate to the public and, if those roles are to be taken out, how you can ensure that the public still gets the service that they expect,” he said.
Axeing jobs “almost randomly without that wider thought process” could lead to the public receiving “a poorer service from central government in all its dimensions”, he added.
Rycroft said he is not against cutting back the civil service, however, if done in the right way.
“There is no god-given right to have a set number of civil servants doing a set number of things,” he said.
“I have no quarrel at all with thinking hard about what the shape and size of the civil service should be, but what I would love to see is a vision about the nature of public service and how that can be improved – in terms of the citizens’ experience of the civil service which runs alongside that reduced bureaucracy.”
Speaking on the podcast Red Team with Colin Talbot – University of Manchester professor of government emeritus and CSW columnist – Rycroft warned that the continuing need for officials to handle new post-Brexit responsibilities would make it difficult to cut back numbers.
“The fact is that since 2016 two really important things have happened – obviously Brexit and then Covid – and those both have driven an increase in the size of the state.
“Some of that can be wound back, in particular I suspect in relation to Covid. But Brexit has brought home responsibilities for a whole bunch of stuff from Brussels to the United Kingdom, and you need people to [carry] out those responsibilities.”
He also questioned if the announcement was just an attempt to deflect attention from elsewhere.
“I slightly worry if the provenance in the Mail had more to do with trying to generate a story that took the attention off other matters rather than actually being a well-thought-through piece of policy,” he said.
Rycroft was joined by Sonia Khan, a former civil servant and special adviser, and Suzannah Brecknell, CSW’s co-editor, on the podcast.
Khan, who was a spad to Sajid Javid when he was chancellor, questioned how the government would deliver its ambitions alongside such heavy cuts, describing how difficult it had been to get things done during the period of austerity that began under the coalition government in 2010.
She said daily newspaper headlines about “backlogs and people who couldn’t get access to the services that they needed” characterised her early years as a civil servant, after joining in 2014.
“The operational side became the story – the lack of people, the lack of training. It detracted from anything else and you couldn’t do anything because you had people who were going without whilst processing times were constantly extended.”
“My question would be how do you match the delivery ambitions of this government that is coming up to a general election and will naturally start to amplify the amount that it wants to achieve with a drudging of so much talent and skill in the civil service?” she added.
She also queried how the government’s ambitions to improve skills capability in the civil service would match with “the desire to lose so many staff”.
Khan said the government’s use of contractors during the pandemic had shown “there is a fundamental skills gap”, while Talbot raised concern that suspending recruitment could lead to unfilled vacancies being taken up by consultants on a high wage, “costing governments far more”.
Government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said last week that the easiest way to cut numbers would be to implement a hiring "freeze", as almost 40,000 civil servants leave their roles each year.
But Brecknell warned that a recruitment freeze itself is a “really blunt way to start cutting numbers”.
“As painful as a full redundancy-type reorganisation is, that would be a more intelligent way if you want to reduce an organisation rather than ‘saying so-and-so happens to have left so we won’t fill that post’,” she said.
The panel also discussed their experience of what makes for a strong civil service.
Rycroft said he would “make it an absolute requisite” for a senior civil servant to have spent time outside the civil service, whether in devolved government, local government, the health service or the voluntary sector.
Meanwhile, Khan – who worked in departments including the Home Office and No.10 during her four years as a civil servant – warned a lack of diversity can lead to a gap between how people working on policy “think the policy will land and how it actually lands”.
"Because perhaps in some departments people come from the same background, they find it really hard to apply policy to a group of people that they just can't empathise with," Khan said.
"Sometimes people were a bit out of touch," she said. "The hiring meant people were only really exposed to one perspective."
She highlighted the bedroom tax as an example of "policies that quickly unravel" because of this lack of diversity.
"But I feel like efforts have really been made to tackle that lately," she added.
A Government spokesperson said: "We are incredibly grateful to the civil service for the outstanding job they do in delivering for the public.
"When people across the country are facing huge living costs, the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and to run as efficiently as possible.
“The Declaration on Government Reform programme will allow a streamlined civil service to do more for less by maximising access to talent, improving skills, setting clearer plans and evaluating them robustly, and improving project delivery.”