Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay has claimed the government’s plans to pare back the civil service headcount by tens of thousands of jobs will be “empowering” for junior staff.
Barclay suggested to MPs that ministers envisaged reducing middle management layers as part of efforts to roll back staffing numbers to the level they were at before the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016 – following five years of cuts driven by Francis Maude.
His comments came in a House of Commons debate yesterday that followed cabinet colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent confirmation of a target to cut a minimum of 65,000 roles, reducing staffing to pre-pandemic levels by 2024-25, the last year of the next spending review period.
The civil service had around 472,700 full-time equivalent staff as of September last year, according to the Institute for Government’s most recent Whitehall Monitor report, with its ranks swelling by nearly 100,000 in the previous five years.
Answering a question posed by Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent South Jack Brereton, Barclay said he “very much” agreed there was need for ministers to focus on reducing both the record numbers of people working in central government and the civil-servant headcount.
Barclay – who is now also No.10 chief of staff in addition to being chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the second-highest-ranking Cabinet Office minister after the prime minister – insisted that reducing civil service headcount would not be an entirely negative move for staff.
“This is also about empowering civil servants and taking away often the many layers so that the very good work of sometimes more junior civil servants can get to ministers and senior decision makers,” he said.
“There is a fiscal benefit of this and an opportunity in how we better empower staff and, in turn, combine that with our learning and development offer. Indeed, that is why the Cabinet Office is doubling the learning and development package that we offer to our staff.”
Last month Barclay enraged civil service unions by launching a new back-to-the-office drive and calling for “maximum use” to be made of departmental space – despite Covid-19 infection rates remaining high.
Yesterday, Democratic Unionist Party MP for Strangford Jim Shannon suggested Barclay should be championing ongoing flexible working as a way to allow staff to acclimatise gradually.
Barclay acknowledged there were “opportunities for hybrid working” and wellbeing advantages for staff relating to commuting times. He also admitted a point routinely made by unions: that Whitehall departments have “far fewer desks” than the number of full-time equivalent staff.
But he went on to suggest it would be a waste of money if departments did not use all of their existing space to the full.
“If we are paying for office space, the question is why it would not be used,” he said. “This is about using the office space that we have as well as recognising that there are opportunities for hybrid working.”