Former sports minister Tracey Crouch has spoken of her “shock” at staff pay levels in the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport and of the initial pushback she experienced over her reforms to controversial fixed-odds betting terminals.
Crouch ultimately resigned as parliamentary undersecretary of state for sport and civil society in November last year when the government confirmed it was delaying the implementation of a cut that to maximum permissible stake at the terminals from £100 to £2 for six months.
In the latest batch of Ministers Reflect interviews conducted by the Institute for Government, Crouch talks about her deep respect for the “underpaid” civil servants she encountered during her time at DCMS and recalls the departmental buy-in that helped get momentum for her fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT) reform.
“I loved my civil service,” Crouch told the IfG’s Catherine Haddon and Daniel Devine. “I think DCMS officials are really undervalued in the whole big scheme of things – the whole department is – and I was really shocked to hear that they have much lower pay levels than other departments, whereas what the department does and the impact that it has on the economy, GDP, productivity or whatever, is huge.”
Crouch subsequently returned to the topic of pay towards the end of her interview – underscoring the depth of her feelings on the topic.
“I don’t think it is fair that DCMS officials are paid less than other officials in Whitehall, just because they do some of the fun stuff as well,” she observed.
IfG data presents a mixed picture on DCMS pay. While median pay at the department is among the highest in Whitehall at £40,000 a year – only exceeded by the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Department for International Development – DCMS has relatively few staff at the civil service’s lower pay grades. However, the think tank’s figures for 2018 also suggest that pay for executive officers at DCMS rank towards the lower end of departmental comparisonsm.
Crouch’s IfG interview also unpacked initial resistance she faced to a review of FOBTs – seen as a major generator of income for high-street betting shops, but a major driver of poverty and despair for gambling addicts who struggle to keep away from the machines.
“On [my] very first day, I said I wanted to review stakes and prizes on gambling, and it took a while for that to actually start, because there was some push back from the civil service to begin with,” Crouch said.
“Once it began... it did actually take three and a half years to finish, but we got there in the end.”
Crouch said that part of the reason her work on gambling got off to a slower start than she would have liked was because the relevant policy team had only just completed another major piece of work on the issue and felt they needed to focus on lottery reviews, the National Lottery and horse-racing problems.
“My view, though, was that you’re a big team, you can definitely juggle all of these issues – it shouldn’t just be one thing for one team at one particular time. So, it did take a bit of push, but we got there in the end,” she said.
“Once we did, I think the gambling team were fully on board with the idea of conducting a wholesale review of stakes and prizes, of which fixed-odds betting terminals was just one element. But I think there was also a realisation and a complete appreciation that the industry that we were dealing with were very… well, they’re quite litigious.”
Crouch said that it was absolutely clear that there was a risk that policy processes would become the subject of High Court challenge, which was part of the reason the review was “a really hard slog” for her team.
Crouch added that while HM Treasury were “quite dominant in their opinion” against FOBT reform, when Theresa May became prime minister it was clear that she was committed to making sure the reform happened.
“We also gathered up lots of support from around other departments,” Crouch said. “DWP, at the time of Iain Duncan Smith, was incredibly helpful, because Iain saw it from the perspective of people who were his stakeholders becoming vulnerable to the actions and behaviours of the [gambling] industry.
“Once DWP had kind of started in that process, that was an enormous help. But we had to gather lots of different views and people are changing all the time within those departments, so it was continuous stakeholder management from a departmental perspective.”
Although Crouch failed to make then-chancellor Philip Hammond introduce the FOBT maximum-stake changes effective from April this year while she was still in office, the furore created by her resignation forced the government’s hand.
Elsewhere in her IfG interview, Crouch expressed her concerns over the impact Brexit secondments had on DCMS policy work – and on wider work across Whitehall.
“I feel enormous sympathy for officials and civil servants who have been working on issues for years and it’s just ground to a halt because of Brexit,” she said.
“Nothing is happening and the one thing I know from my time in Whitehall is that officials want to get stuff done. You know, their modus operandi is not: ‘Let’s not have any change’. They’re there to deliver policy change and legislation and I genuinely feel for them at the moment.”
Crouch said that although her portfolio was “wonderfully” Brexit light, DCMS as a whole had to rein in its policy ambitions as staff were seconded to Brexit work.
“The department itself saw quite a big change in the number of people that were going off to the Brexit delivery units, so the teams became fewer in number, which made it more challenging for them,” she said.
“As a result, I had to temper some of my own thoughts and ideas, because they couldn’t be delivered as we just didn’t have the resources to deliver them. So, certainly we had to start to prioritise the areas that we wanted teams to look at, which is a shame because there was a lot of good stuff that in normal circumstances could have been done.”
After being generous on the modus operandi of civil servants, Crouch was nothing but frank in her assessment of Matt Hancock – now secretary of state for health and social care – during his time as a DCMS minister, a situation that only changed after he was promoted to the department’ helm.
“Matt was a very different secretary of state to minister: he was a complete pain in the arse as a minister – and I say this to his face – he was a complete pain, but as secretary of state, he was fabulous,” she said.
“He was a really good leader of a team, he was full of energy, he was 100% supportive of ideas and policies, he had a really good gut feeling about what would work, what wouldn’t work.
“If he made a decision that was counter to what you were recommending, he would always explain his position and why he came to that view and be enormously apologetic, and you couldn’t help but say OK fine, you’re the secretary of state.
“I worked really well with Matt and I was sorry for me that he got promoted, although I wasn’t sorry for him.”
Crouch said she believed everyone who had served under Hancock as a secretary of state had supported his bid to become Conservative Party leader this summer.
Her full interview can be read here.