Brown, Major and O'Donnell: Cabinet Office and No.10 are too big and inefficient

The former prime ministers and cab sec warn of "massive rise in the number of bureaucrats" at the centre of government
IfG director Hannah White (left, standing) launching the report, with John Major and Gordon Brown sitting next to her and biographer Anthony Seldon on the right. Photo: Tevye Markson

By Tevye Markson

12 Mar 2024

The Cabinet Office and No.10 have grown too big and need cutting back, two former prime ministers and a cabinet secretary have said.

At an event on Monday launching the Institute for Government’s latest report, Fixing the centre of government, Gordon Brown, John Major and Gus O’Donnell questioned the rise in headcount in the two central departments over the last few decades.

The report, by the think tank’s year-long Commission on the Centre of Government, notes that the Cabinet Office has more than doubled from 6,000 staff in 2010 – the year of Brown’s departure from government – to 15,000 in mid-2023. Meanwhile, No.10 has grown from around 200 during Brown’s tenure to roughly 350. The increase is even greater since Major's time in power.

Major, who was PM from 1990 to 1997, said he is “unconvinced” that No.10 and the Cabinet Office are more efficient as a result of these increases.

And Brown, who was prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and chancellor for the 10 years prior, said there has been a “massive rise in the number of bureaucrats in certain positions in the centre without the numbers to prove it”.

Both gave speeches opining on the IfG report, which found both departments have “grown enormously” and called for the departments to be restructured into a Department for the Civil Service (DCS) and a Department for the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC).

Brown said he was “quite shocked” to find that the Cabinet Office and No.10 had grown so much given his government was accused of being a “bloated bureaucracy” when his spell as PM ended in 2010.

“We were being accused of a centre that was overpowerful, of big government and everything else,” he said.

Brown also pointed out that the Cabinet Office's Domestic and Economic Secretariat has trebled from 40 to 120 staff, and that the Treasury has risen from 1,600 to more than 2,000 – adding that “some say with all the departments linked to it is nearly 3,000”.

“And so we’ve had a massive rise in the number of bureaucrats in certain positions in the centre without the numbers to prove it,” Brown said.

“So we’re going to need rationalisation, we’re going to need modernisation, but most of all we’re going to need the coordination of strategic government for the future.”

Reflecting on the change in the departments’ size since his time in power, Major said: “No.10 is a very different place than once it was. I go back into the dark ages perhaps, but in the 1980s and '90s, No.10 had about 100 staff. It now has three-and-a-half times that number at, no doubt, three-and-a-half times the cost. But I have seen no evidence yet – not shown to me, certainly – that it is three-and-a-half times more efficient. Indeed, hearsay suggest precisely the opposite.”

“Similarly in the 2000s, the Cabinet Office had already 1,600 staff,” he added. “I am told it now has over 10,000. It is, of course, partly because of Europe, because the preparation done for the European referendum was inadequate. After the referendum had voted the way it did, many decisions had to be made that had not been considered and they were all just loaded onto the Cabinet Office, which accounts for that huge swelling in numbers. Yet even so, I’m unconvinced it’s more efficient.”

In a panel discussion following the two speeches, Lord O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 2005 to 2011, agreed with the comments.

"The Cabinet Office and No.10 are way too big,” said O’Donnell, who was also Downing Street press secretary under Major. “Far too many special advisers, far too many civil servants. Shrink it down.”

Most of the experts that the commission spoke to for the IfG report said No.10 is now too big, with the increase in staff numbers leading to “confused remits, a loss of focus on core priorities and an exacerbated tendency towards a ‘court-like’ working environment”, the report said. 

As for the Cabinet Office, the commission said interviewees – which included senior civil servants, local government leaders, charities and leading scientists – felt its headcount growth had come “without an accompanying clarification of the department’s purpose and priorities”, which was “an important factor in diluting its coherence”.

Under the proposal to create two new departments, the DPMC would be smaller than the total headcount of the current No.10 and prime ministerially-focused teams in the Cabinet Office.

The Rishi Sunak government has said it wants to bring the civil service headcount back to pre-Covid levels – which would mean cutting around 66,000 jobs – but has made no specific proposals for reducing the size of the Cabinet Office and No.10.

Mixed views: Splitting cab sec from head of civil service

Another of the report's recommendations is to split the cabinet secretary and head of civil service roles, a common talking point in debates on government reform, with Maude recommending the same change in his review of civil service governance published just four months ago.

Here, the trio were not in full agreement. Major said the roles should remain conjoined, while Brown agreed with the commission that they should be separated and O’Donnell landed somewhere between the two.

Major said he was “dubious” about splitting the roles due to the need for the head of the civil service to be in regular, close contact with the prime minister.

“The civil service is the delivery arm of the government, the engine of the whole machine, its work is absolutely crucial,” he said. “If the civil service fails, government fails. For those reasons and others… I believe its head should be the most senior civil servant, the only one with daily and direct access to the prime minister, and that is the cabinet secretary.”

Brown, on the other hand, said it is “too much to expect that the person who is the secretary of the cabinet is also going to be head of the civil service effectively”.

“I remember Jeremy Heywood saying that it was his fifth priority, to head the civil service, because there were four priorities before that,” he said.

“When we were facing a financial crisis; we needed both these jobs to be done by people who could give their full time and commitment to that,” Brown added.

Brown argued, in alignment with the IfG report, that concerns about the role's authority could be overcome through a civil service act setting out the head of civil service’s responsibilities and what they are accountable for.

The civil service head job was last split out as a separate role in January 2021, when Sir Bob Kerslake took on the title, with Jeremy Heywood named cab sec and Ian Watmore permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office. O'Donnell held all three titles.

The head of the civil service brief was merged back into the cabinet secretary's job in 2014, with Heywood retaining both titles until he stepped down with ill health four years later. Simon Case currently holds both roles, while the perm sec title is currently held by civil service COO Sir Alex Chisholm, who will soon be replaced by Cat Little.

O’Donnell warned simply splitting the role results in “a head of the civil service with no power, no influence over PM – they just don’t get anywhere”.

He said the idea of a civil service act which would give the head of the civil service role “real powers and responsibility” was “interesting”, adding that he would be “really interested in exploring how that might work”.

But he added: “If you just split the jobs, it won’t work. If you just do a repeat of the civil service department, it won’t work. Because we’ve done it before and it didn’t work. They become glorified HR and nobody pays any attention to them. They don’t have any power. That’s the key, you’ve got to give them power.”

A civil service department last existed more than 40 years ago. Set up in 1968, the Civil Service Department was abolished by then-PM Margaret Thatcher 1981 following criticism of its effectiveness throughout the 1970s and as part of sweeping reforms in pursuit of a smaller, more efficient civil service.

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