Former justice secretary David Gauke has unleashed a blistering attack on the government’s proposals to reduce civil service headcount by 91,000 over the next three years.
Gauke, who also served as chief secretary to the Treasury and work and pensions secretary under Theresa May, said it would be “irresponsible” not to target efficiency in the delivery of public services, and wrong to assume staff cuts led to a deterioration service quality.
But in a column for the Conservative Home website, Gauke said he believed the proposals set out earlier this month for a 20% cut in civil service headcount over the next three years were “unrealistically optimistic, politically motivated and ideologically incoherent”.
He said the plan failed to recognise the requirements being placed on the civil service as a result of Brexit, the pandemic and the levelling-up agenda – echoing recent points made by former civil service head Lord Bob Kerslake.
Gauke said HM Revenue and Customs was one department that had “grown in confidence and capability” over the past 12 years in the face of headcount reductions because it had embraced new technology to reduce clerical tasks and made better use of data.
However, he said the potential to drive efficiencies in some operations did not mean it was “realistic” to reduce the size of the civil service to its 2016 level – itself a postwar low – by cutting more than 90,000 jobs.
“It is worth analysing why civil service numbers have increased over the last six years,” he said.
“The principal reason is that we have wanted the civil service to do more things. The obvious example of this is Brexit. We have returned certain responsibilities to the UK government from the European Union, and we need to employ people to fulfil those responsibilities.
“We previously did not have (or need) a Department for International Trade; now we have one employing 2,000 people. We have increased the number of policy staff in the environment and culture departments because there is now more policy that needs to be done here. We also have new operational requirements, such as operating a new customs border with the EU, which will require civil servants to operate.”
Gauke lost the Conservative whip in 2019 over his opposition to prime minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy and stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for his former South West Hertfordshire seat in that year’s general election.
He said the need to employ more civil servants was “not a killer argument against Brexit” but was an “undeniable consequence” of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union that could not be dismissed.
“If policy for some matters is permanently going to be located in the UK, then we permanently need to maintain policy capability here,” he said.
He added that other policy objectives required appropriate staffing levels, including levelling up, the Department for Work and Pensions’ efforts to help more people find work, and the need to prepare for future public health emergencies as highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Gauke also referenced backlogs in the Court Service, DVLA and HM Passport Office which required more officials to address.
Departments told to ‘model for 40% cuts’
Over the weekend, it emerged that departments have been told to work up plans for delivering headcount reductions in the magnitude of 20%, 30% and 40% to support detailed proposals for the cross-civil service staff cuts.
Gauke said there was “something odd” about starting such a process seven months after last year’s three-year Comprehensive Spending Review, which was delivered alongside chancellor Rishi Sunak’s autumn budget.
“At the time of the CSR, the government set out plans which implied a reduction to the civil service headcount of 28,500,” he said.
The Treasury put a number on the planned headcount reduction at the Spending Review, but said the number of non-frontline civil servants would shrink to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25, helping to fund increases to frontline roles
“This, presumably, was part of the discussions within government and provided a key assumption in the departmental spending settlements," Gauke said.
“Now, we have new numbers and a new process is being commenced. Spending departments are entitled to ask what is going on. Is the CSR being reopened or not?”
Gauke said the suspicion had to be that the headcount reductions were being “driven by political considerations” on the part of a government that wanted to appear “more ideologically Conservative” to appeal to sections of the public with a negative view of civil servants.
He said the approach would not bring out the best in staff on whom ministers depend and was not a good fit with the “big state conservatism” that fuelled the Conservative Party’s 80-seat majority at the 2019 general election.