Civil service hiring and firing rules set for review as Cummings and Johnson plot Whitehall overhaul

Reports suggest departmental changes will be implemented in the new year following a limited reshuffle this week


 Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

16 Dec 2019

The government is planning a wide-ranging overhaul of both the structure of departments and the employment terms of civil servants led by the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

A series of media reports at the weekend said that there were plans for a departmental restructure in the new year once the government had got its Brexit deal approved by the new Conservative majority parliament. Possible changes floated include splitting responsibility for UK borders and immigration system off from the Home Office into a standalone department and merging the Department for International Trade with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Responsibility for climate change policy could also be moved back our of BEIS into its own ministry, which could in effect reverse Theresa May’s abolition of the Department for Energy and Climate Change in 2016.

The Department for Exiting the EU would also be abolished, with responsibility for negotiations over the UK's future relationship with the EU being led by the Cabinet Office – as recommended by the Institute for Government last week.


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The Department for International Development could also be absorbed by the Foreign Office, reversing one of Labour’s first big machinery of government changes when it took power in 1997. A “super-department” for education focused on research and development spending alongside skills to rebalance the economy has also been mooted, as Johnson aims to increase the government’s focus on the north of England and the Midlands, where support for the Conservatives grew markedly in last week's election.

According to reports in The Sunday Times, these departmental changes will take place in February, after Brexit. A limited government reshuffle is expected today to fill ministerial vacancies, including those left by left by Nicky Morgan at the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport after she left parliament at the election, and Alun Cairns, who resigned as Welsh secretary during the election campaign.

Hiring and firing

A review of civil service employment terms is also expected. The Sunday Telegraph reported that Cummings, a long-standing critic of the civil service, would spearhead work to underpin radical reforms, including a review of hiring and firing processes.

Cummings has claimed that a permanent civil service is “an idea for history books” and proposed the abolition of the role of permanent secretaries in his vision for civil service reform.

In 2014 lecture, Cummings said that the civil service "weeds out dissenters" and instead “promotes people who focus on being important, not getting important things done”.

“So if you have an entire political structure that selects against the skills of entrepreneurs and successful scientists, don’t be surprised when the people in charge can’t solve problems like entrepreneurs and scientists.”

In the same lecture, Cummings said that the HR system in many parts of the civil service discourages people from caring about their work, because "almost no one is ever fired" and failure is not treated as "something to be avoided".

Cummings has also called for the cabinet to be radically slimmed down. “The idea of a cabinet of over 30 people is a complete farce; it should be maximum of probably six or seven people,” he said in the lecture.

Reorganisation 'distraction' warning

Responding to the reported changes, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said that policy is a better way of ensuring than government can effect real change than reorganising departments.

“Whilst the temptation from every new government is to demonstrate their reforming zeal by reorganising Whitehall, this can often be a distraction and waste both time and money as civil servants merge or split departments, rather than simply getting on with the job in hand,” he said.

"Government departments, many of whom employ thousands of staff, are all separate employers with their own pay and grading structures. Putting these together alongside IT and back office functions takes time and resource.

"It’s never a short-term fix and only works if it’s supported by a clear policy focus and is embedded for the longer term.”

Chief secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak remained tight-lipped yesterday when pressed on whether the prime minister wants to implement a raft of changes in Whitehall.

"I think what people watching will not be interested in the process of government," the cabinet minister told Sky News. "What they want to know is that government’s going to deliver for them."

The Financial Times also reported that cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill is set to stay in the post, rather than fill the vacancy for UK ambassador to the US. Sedwill was mooted as a possible successor to Sir Kim Darroch, the ambassador who incurred the wrath of US president Donald Trump earlier this year.

Additional reporting by Matt Honeycombe-Foster, news editor of CSW's sister titile PoliticsHome.

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