McVey announces 'common sense' plan to streamline equality and diversity work

Esther McVey takes aim at “woke hobby horses”, external EDI spending and non-standardised lanyards
Esther McVey. Photo: Uwe Deffner/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

13 May 2024

Diversity jobs will moved into HR teams and staff in these roles will be asked to focus only on statutory obligations, Cabinet Office minister Esther McVey has announced.

McVey said the Cabinet Office will publish new guidance on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and impartiality, which will also include a block on all external EDI spending in the civil service unless it has been signed off and cleared by ministers.

Speaking in a keynote speech at the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, McVey described dedicated EDI roles in the civil service as “woke hobby horses”, and said the new guidance will “support the civil service to deliver for the public without distraction and division”.

The announcements in her speech follow a value for money audit of EDI spending in the civil service launched by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, in October. 

McVey dubbed the plans, which also include making changes to staff lanyards, job adverts and civil service networks, “the next stages of the common sense fight back”.

Civil service unions have slammed the announcements, including Prospect saying the plan “simply does not make business or organisational sense”.

Writing yesterday for the Sunday Telegraph ahead of this morning's speech, McVey explained that the changes to EDI roles would mean there would be no more dedicated EDI jobs in the civil service outside of HR and “no more staff dedicating 100% of their time to EDI work”. She said all EDI roles within the civil service will be “consolidated into their department’s HR teams, and ministers and their permanent secretaries will ensure that these teams are focused on their statutory obligations around EDI – the things we are legally required to do which have a proven benefit, not unproven diversity work which has no basis in law”.

The minister said civil servants have “too often” been “distracted by fashionable hobby horses, especially when it comes to issues like equality and diversity”.

“People want their public servants to be getting on with the job of making their lives better, not engaging in endless internal discussions about ideology,” she added. “And I'm not prepared to see pointless job creation schemes for the politically correct.”

McVey said in a Q&A session following her speech that her plans would not involve “getting rid of anybody”. Instead, anyone with a role solely focused on EDI will be moved into HR teams and will be asked to focus on “what we statutorily have to do”.

She said a review of how much time is spent on EDI in the civil service, launched by the chancellor, had found that there are “somewhere like the equivalent of 400 full-time employees” in the civil service.

The ban on external diversity spending without permission from a government minister will include any agencies with current contracts, McVey said, namechecking LGBT charity Stonewall.

She said secretaries of state and permanent secretaries will be asked to ensure that the clampdown on external EDI spending “does not inadvertently lead to an increase in internal EDI activity”.

McVey said she will also ask the arms-length bodies with the biggest external EDI spending levels “to account for this spending and how it is actually supporting their service to their customers: the public”.

Responding to McVey’s comments on EDI roles, Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “Improving equality, diversity and inclusion in the civil service is "not a woke hobby horse" as claimed by some ministers. Instead, it speaks to the enduring values of the civil service of recruitment and promotion on merit, makes sound business sense and reflects the stated aspiration of the government that the civil service should reflect the society it serves.”

Clancy said “the suggestion that the civil service should not learn from and draw on internal and external expertise simply does not make business or organisational sense” and said spending to support equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives is “relatively modest” in a workforce of more than 500,000.

He called on the government to “end its self-created culture war and attacks on the civil service”.

PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote also criticised the plans. She said: “Time and again, evidence shows an equal and diverse workforce is a more productive workforce.

“Esther McVey is playing politics with our members’ livelihoods and well-being. She would be better spending her time, and her department’s money, on improving our members’ pay and working conditions.”

And FDA assistant general secretary Lucille Thirlby said: "Yet again, the government is attacking the equality, diversity and inclusion spend in the civil service – a convenient punch-bag for when it wants to demonstrate that it’s taking a tough stance, when in reality these changes could actually lead to damage."

Networks, lanyards and job adverts

In her speech, titled Common Sense at the Heart of Government, McVey, who was dubbed the “common sense minister” when she was appointed in November, also took aim at security lanyards, staff networks and job adverts.

She said the Cabinet Office will be closing down any staff networks that “have moved to a place of political and religious activism”.

“Networks that were meant to be about inclusivity too often, in fact, brought division and upset into the working environment,” she said.

In March, the deputy prime minister suspended the Civil Service Muslim Network over the Israel-Palestine conflict in Gaza. McVey said the individuals involved “are subject to a disciplinary investigation”.

The minister said there will also be changes to the lanyards civil servants wear to carry security passes.  They “shouldn't be a random pick and mix, they should be a standard design reflecting that we are all members of the government delivering for the citizens of the UK”, she said. “Working in the civil service is all about leaving your political views at the building entrance. Trying to introduce them by the back door via lanyards should not happen.” McVey said departments will provide officials with standardised lanyards which officials must wear, with perm secs tasked with ensuring they do so.

McVey said the government will also be making changes to civil service job adverts. “After all of the important information like responsibilities, pay and application details, there often appears large, chunky, unnecessary text outlining what appears to be irrelevant information distracting from the job application and off-putting too many from applying,” she said. “Those unnecessary additions will all be removed.”

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