Sunak’s civil service plan ‘shows he doesn’t understand the basics’

Union chief derides plan including “introducing” performance-related pay, cutting "back office" jobs and private sector secondments for SCS
Rishi Sunak during a hustings event in Cheltenham. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

16 Aug 2022

Rishi Sunak’s plans for the civil service have been blasted by the head of a civil service union, who accused him of failing to understand how government works.

The Conservative Party leadership candidate last night unveiled a swathe of proposals to reform the civil service, including introducing performance-related pay, which has been around in the civil service since 1982, and getting senior civil servants to spend time in the private sector.

The former chancellor also revealed last night that he would go ahead with Boris Johnson’s proposal to cut tens of thousands of jobs, but would focus on “back office jobs”, and said he would reverse the government’s decision to suspend recruitment into the Fast Stream.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said Sunak’s ideas are “ill-thought-out rhetoric that doesn’t survive the first hour of scrutiny” and shows he “doesn’t understand the basics of how the civil service operates”.

“Once again we’re seeing a Conservative Party leadership candidate make an announcement that fails to grasp the challenges the civil service faces and fails to provide any meaningful solutions,” he added.

Institute for Government senior research fellow and ex-civil servant Jill Rutter called Sunak’s proposals “a package aimed at the civil service of the 1980s”.

Performance-related pay, one of Sunak’s chief announcements, was first introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1982, with progression pay based on time served being gradually phased out of the civil service in the last three decades.

Current pay remit guidance for the civil service says departments “should have removed automatic progression pay” from their workforces and “it should not be reintroduced”.

“Any progression pay still in place in core departments or their ALBs not agreed through business case approvals will be in breach of government policy,” the guidance adds.

Sunak said introducing performance-related pay awards would help to eliminate churn, as currently officials have to change jobs to get pay rises.

This is a similar idea to capability-based pay progression, which aims to reward officials for developing skills and expertise. The Cabinet Office has been working on this since 2018 but said earlier this year it is unlikely to be introduced until at least April 2023.

Sunak’s plans to “press ahead with cuts to back-office civil service headcount, recruiting and retaining the brightest and best” are also based on previous policies, this time his own.

While chancellor, his 2021 Spending Review included aims to reduce the non-frontline civil service headcount to pre-pandemic levels to fund frontline roles. Cabinet secretary Simon Case said in June this plan would have meant shedding around 20,000 jobs, far less than the 91,000 cuts Johnson later proposed in May. Sunak has not confirmed how many jobs he would look to slash.

The FDA also criticised the ex-chancellor’s promise to recruit the brightest and best from outside government, saying this “rings hollow with a refusal to address the huge pay gap that exists between the civil service and the private sector”.

Penman said the pay gap is “only being exacerbated”  by a below-inflation pay rise offered to civil servants during a cost-of-living crisis. Most civil servants will get a pay rise of just 2% this year, while inflation has risen to 9%, a 40-year high.

The FDA general secretary also questioned how Sunak’s plan to get senior civil servants to spend at least a year of their career outside Whitehall would work when the government is planning to reduce departmental headcount so severely.

“Whilst many civil servants would welcome the opportunity to gain experience outside of the civil service, this would require significant resources at a time when he states he wants to dramatically cut staff numbers,” he said.

Similar plans are already under way, with Civil Service HR last year creating a secondments unit to “improve the effectiveness of government by making use of people with skills and experience from outside, and give those within government the opportunity to develop their skills outside”.

Sunak also announced plans for the Fast Stream that would diverge from the current suspension, which was approved when he was chancellor. He said he would keep the scheme going but reform it by getting fast streamers to work outside London and in public service delivery roles.

Going beyond the UK government, Sunak also said he would increase scrutiny of the Scottish Government by getting senior Scottish civil servants to face MPs at Westminster select committees.

Penman, summing up his response Sunak's announcements, added: "With Brexit still a work in progress, huge backlogs in public services from the pandemic, a new war on mainland Europe, a cost-of-living crisis, and now a looming recession, the country needs a prime minister who can equip the civil service with the resources and skills it needs to meet the challenges ahead, not ill-thought out rhetoric that doesn’t survive the first hour of scrutiny."

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