Civil service unions have voiced disbelief about claims that ministerial aides are alarmed about the size of the Cabinet Office’s HR headcount – under arrangements created by coalition government minister Francis Maude.
Less than a week after the Daily Mail became the official government channel for confirming prime minister Boris Johnson’s plans to cut civil service numbers by 91,000, the Spectator reported on “deep dive” work on roles reportedly being overseen by Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay.
It said aides were “alarmed to learn there are estimated to be around 700 working in HR in the Cabinet Office alone and 80 still working on Cop26, even though the summit ended in November”. The story was repurposed by other right-of-centre titles and prompted fresh calls to reduce “bloated bureaucracy” from pressure group the TaxPayers Alliance.
However, unions pointed out that the Cabinet Office’s centralised Civil Service HR function had been introduced by Maude as an efficiency measure to reduce the duplication of roles across government, and save money in the process.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of public service professionals’ union Prospect, said it was “ironic” that a coalition-era initiative designed to improve efficiency was now the focus of attack.
"I don't know whether it is ignorance or mendacity which has led to misreporting of HR numbers in the Cabinet Office,” he said.
“Numbers have been trailled without context or an explanation of the pan-civil service responsibilities of staff.
“This aggressive political briefing against the civil service, unfettered by fact or context, is completely unacceptable. It is a pattern of behaviour, it is cowardly and it is damaging.”
Graham said that if ministers wanted an informed discussion on civil service numbers, they should meet with unions.
“We are happy to meet any place, anytime, anywhere – and yes, face to face,” he said. “This cowardly and hectoring approach must stop.”
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union – which represents civil service leaders – said attempts to present a coalition government reform enacted to streamline services as a problem that needed to be fixed were evidence of a lack of vision in cabinet.
“It’s increasingly clear that ministers not only don’t have a plan, they don’t have a clue,” he said.
“HR was centralised in the Cabinet Office under Francis Maude as an efficiency measure, reducing capacity in departments. This is a government of headlines, not policies.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said the Barclay-camp comments on Civil Service HR were just “another excuse” to attack hard-working officials.
“At a time when our existing members are struggling with workloads, we need more civil servants, not less,” he said. “The public would be better served with more HR professionals working to recruit more staff to help clear backlogs with passports and driving licences, and to speed passengers through our ports and airports.
“Any cuts in staff numbers will make things worse, not better. We will defend every single job in the civil service, not just on behalf of our hard-working members but on behalf of every member of the public who relies on the services they provide every day.”
A government spokesperson stressed that Civil Service HR serves the whole of the civil service as a central unit providing a variety of HR functions, not just the Cabinet Office.
They added that the government always had staff working on Cop, regardless of which nation held the presidency, and that the current staff included a “negotiating team” to represent the UK after it hands over the presidency.
“The civil service does an outstanding job delivering for the public and driving progress on the government’s priorities,” they said.
“When people and businesses across the country are facing rising costs, the public rightly expect their government to run as efficiently as possible and the prime minister has tasked the cabinet to return the Civil Service to its 2016 levels, to deliver a leaner, more capable workforce.”
Maude review called for “much more unified approach” to HR
A review of government’s central functions – which include HR, commercial, IT and digital, and finance – conducted by Maude last year called for them to be given a stronger mandate and greater ability to hold departments to account.
“Their mandate must enable them to intervene to prevent departments from going down the wrong path before the damage is done,” he said.
His review said a “new and much more unified approach” to HR across government was “essential” to start clearing skills and capability deficiencies. It added: “Doing this on a much more whole-of-government-basis will be able to make substantial reductions in cost.”
Maude said “significant variation” in HR practice still existed across government. Among his recommendations was a call for the chief people officer to “have the power to insist on the standardization of definitions, data and HR practices across government”.
This week’s Spectator also claims that government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg told last week’s cabinet meeting in Stoke on Trent that the 20% civil-service headcount reduction agreed by ministers should commence with a recruitment freeze that would include suspending the Fast Stream.
The magazine – which counts Johnson among its former editors – said the proposal prompted a “frosty reaction” that pushed the prime minister to stress the need to send a “strong message” on the need to reduce civil service headcount.
The Spectator said the “latest thinking” on Fast Stream recruitment was that decisions on numbers would be left up to departments.
This story was updated at 3.30pm on 19 May 2022 to include a government response