The “bewildering pace” of ministerial change must be slowed, a former permanent secretary has urged – as he called freshly appointed defence secretary Grant Shapps’s string of rapid career moves “close to a definition of madness”.
In a letter to The Times the day after Rishi Sunak’s latest cabinet mini-reshuffle, Sir Leigh Lewis urged the prime minister’s successor to keep ministers in place for longer.
Yesterday’s shakeup was prompted by Ben Wallace’s resignation as defence secretary to “invest in the parts of life that I have neglected, and to explore new opportunities”.
Shapps was quickly moved into the vacant role, which became his fifth cabinet post in a year. After three years as transport secretary, he spent just a week as home secretary last October before being moved to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Five months later, he was appointed to head up the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero when BEIS split.
“Whatever his merits for the role of defence secretary, this is close to a definition of madness as far as good government is concerned,” wrote Lewis, who was the Department for Work and Pensions’ top civil servant from 2006 to 2011.
Claire Coutinho, previously minister for children, families and wellbeing, succeeded Shapps as energy secretary in yesterday’s reshuffle. She was replaced in turn at the Department for Education by backbencher David Johnston.
“In my five years as a permanent secretary I served five different secretaries of state. If anything, the bewildering pace of ministerial change has only increased further since then,” Lewis said.
“The huge discontinuity that this creates is aggravated by the speed with which senior civil servants also now routinely move within departments,” he added.
“It is to be hoped that whoever becomes prime minister after the next election appoints and keeps ministers in place for far longer. Good government demands good ministers supported by good civil servants being in their departments for long enough to master their subject areas and lead with continuity and expertise.”
Staff turnover has been at the centre of discussions about civil service reform in recent years, with warnings that the implementation of policies and projects is being harmed by senior officials moving on before work is completed. There is also concern about a lack of institutional memory within departments.
A series of proposals has been made to tackle churn, including a “milestone-based” approach to pay designed to incentivise senior officials to stay in their roles for the full duration of important projects. However, the Cabinet Office revealed earlier this summer that the milestone-based reward scheme had been halted due to pressures on resources and competing priorities.
Lewis is one of many experts who have called for urgent action on turnover among both civil servants and ministers. The Institute for Government’s latest Whitehall Monitor report, published in January, warned that high turnover among ministers had “made government less effective” – pointing in particular to the mass resignations that ultimately toppled Boris Johnson as prime minister in July 2022.