Ex-Conservative Party leader – and former foreign secretary – William Hague has branded plans to stop recruitment into the civil service’s Fast Stream graduate programme as a “wrong choice” by Boris Johnson.
Lord Hague said proposals to close the programme to new entrants for at least a year from 2023 as part of measures to reduce civil service headcount by 20% were an example of a short-term response to a crisis that could make another crisis “much worse”.
Hague, who led his party from 1997 to 2001, said he was in favour of efforts to “staunch the huge increase in the number of officials” working for departments and agencies, which has risen by 91,000 over the past six years.
But he said that the move would be counterproductive and hamper Whitehall’s ability to reconfigure itself for the future.
“What the civil service really needs is fewer people overall with some very bright new ones, including those with the scientific and technical expertise of which it is desperately short,” Hague wrote in The Times.
“It needs more diversity of thinking and recruits who think outside the normal boxes, with less bureaucracy and more breakthroughs like those of the Vaccine Task Force.
“It needs more fast streamers if it is to be reinvented, but instead the government has opted for retrenchment.”
Hague’s opinion piece was not limited to the government’s plans for the civil service or the Fast Stream in particular. It covered broader themes of the need for resilience, reinvention and new thinking in times of change and previously-unseen challenge.
However, Hague’s reflections on proposals to pause the Fast Stream to new entrants were the most specific example of a misguided government policy.
Hague’s wife Ffion is a former civil servant. She was his private secretary at the Welsh Office in the final years of John Major’s government, when he was secretary of state for Wales.
Hague said ensuring resilience could be a “very boring matter” of bigger stockpiles and inventories, or a “hugely exciting” opportunity for households, businesses and countries reinvent themselves.
“Whenever we can, that is the choice we should make. We should press our leaders to do the same,” he wrote. “A short-term response to one crisis can make another much worse. The civil service needs more recruits who think outside the box.”
When details of the government’s Fast Stream plans emerged, FDA general secretary Dave Penman described the recruitment freeze as “virtue-signalling short termism”.
“The Fast Stream attracts some of the most capable graduates in the country and is about the next generation of leaders – this is venturing on vandalism for the future of the civil service,” he said.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at the Prospect union, said pausing Fast Stream recruitment was a “chaotic and damaging” move.
“The government’s reform agenda highlights the importance of STEM and data skills and the need for the civil service to promote new thinking and recruit the best and the brightest,” he said. “This announcement runs counter to that.
“What is clear is there is no centrally driven and coherent manpower plan for the civil service and this is strategy by headline and dog whistle.”
A government spokesperson said the prime minister was resolute that civil service headcount could not be maintained at its current level.
“Our focus is on having a civil service that has the skills and capabilities to continue delivering outstanding public services, which is exactly why we have changed recruitment rules to bring in the very best talent and are investing in the professional development of our people,” they said.
“It is crucial that all aspects of taxpayer spending demonstrate efficiency and value for money. It was right to grow the civil service to deliver Brexit and deal with the pandemic, but we must now return it to 2016 staffing levels and have asked all government departments to set out how this might be achieved.”
Secretaries of state and their senior officials have been given to the end of this month to draft their headcount-reduction plans.