Job cuts may grab headlines, but ministers should be on notice: nothing is off the table

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a greater workload demands higher permanent staffing levels, writes Prospect's general secretary
Voting to take back control and leave the EU saw powers, responsibility and work repatriated to the UK government. Photo: horst friedrichs/Alamy Stock Photo

By Mike Clancy

16 May 2022

As the general secretary of Prospect trade union, I am constantly thinking about how I manage our staff team, who are charged with improving the working lives of our 150,000 members. How to enable them to do their best, how to motivate them and how to ensure the organisation is best equipped to serve members.

That has never involved briefing against them or making announcements about the future of their jobs to the media before I have spoken to them. But this is the reality for our civil servants, who awoke this morning to see reports of 91,000 job cuts splashed across the front pages.

Prospect represents workers across the public and private sectors. While I have seen poor practice from all kinds of employers over my thirty odd years of representing workers, it is rare to see such relentless attacks on staff as we see against the civil service. No other workforce has had to endure the endless negative briefing to the press about their future from their bosses that civil servants have been subject to in recent months. All on staff who rightly must stay rigorously politically neutral and can’t answer back in public.

"No other workforce has had to endure the endless negative briefing to the press about their future from their bosses that civil servants have been subject to in recent months"

The prime minister and his minister for government efficiency say they want to return to a pre-Brexit headcount. Even if Brexit was completely over and done with this wouldn’t make sense, but the work has only just begun. There are trade deals to be struck, complex legal structures to be untangled, and the small issue of the Northern Ireland protocol to be solved. The truth is that voting to take back control and leave the EU saw powers, responsibility and work permanently repatriated to the UK government. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a greater workload demands higher permanent staffing levels, often in technical specialisms like aviation regulation and trade policy.

Unions are not alone in speaking up for our committed public servants. Baroness Stuart – the government’s new first civil service commissioner – has criticised ministers for their “wrong… counterproductive” attacks on staff and said they risk putting talented people off a career in public service.

It’s not just verbal attacks civil servants have to deal with. They’ve endured real-terms pay cuts for over a decade, increasingly falling behind private and other public sector employers. Yet while their wages have declined by 20% since 2010, their commitment to serving our country has been unwavering through the greatest period of upheaval since the Second World War. It is disgraceful that their reward is to be pummelled like a political punching bag by ministers desperate to distract from their own failings.

"Running organisations efficiently is a responsible use of public funds, but there’s a difference between efficiency and cutting services to the bone. Arbitrarily cutting numbers and salami slicing departmental budgets fails to plan based on the services needed"

Running organisations efficiently is a responsible use of public funds, but there’s a difference between efficiency and cutting services to the bone. Arbitrarily cutting numbers and salami slicing departmental budgets fails to plan based on the services needed, nor does it recognise the need to build resilience for when unexpected crises hit. Analysis from the Institute for Government makes clear that the level of cuts proposed would hit frontline services and roles, with the outcome “worse for the taxpayer”.

Similarly, declaring another “bonfire of the quangos” might result in a nice headline, but would do incredible harm to our country. Prospect members in arm's-length bodies work day-in, day-out to defend, protect, support and enhance the lives of the British people. They revitalise our environment at Natural England, guard against infectious diseases at the UK Health Security Agency, and protect the nation at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

Government ministers looking for value for money should look closer to home: billions spent on faulty PPE, billions more given in contracts to party donors, and huge amounts lost to Covid loan fraud. As for Mr Rees-Mogg’s skulking around Whitehall, that’s hardly a good use of a government minister’s working time – to me, it’s the very definition of a presenteeism that the private sector would recoil from.

From dealing with the greatest threat to European security in generations, to tackling the cost-of-living crisis, there are plenty of serious issues that the government needs to get to grips with. Our civil servants have proven they’re up to the job, having risen to the challenges posed by the pandemic and Brexit and committed to seeing us through the tests we face in the years ahead.

Prospect will be consulting with our members about the campaign ahead to save their jobs and protect the services the public rely on. Ministers should be on notice: nothing is off the table.

Mike Clancy is General Secretary of Prospect trade union, which represents 30,000 members in public services.

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