Civil service unions have hit out at a threat by would-be prime minister Jeremy Hunt to cancel civil servants’ summer holidays to keep no-deal Brexit planning on track, as it was reported Boris Johnson was being urged to axe government departments if he is successful.
The Prospect union wrote to Whitehall’s chief people officer, Rupert McNeil, yesterday urging him to step in and ensure there is “no blanket or wide scale ban on civil servants taking leave over the summer”, as other unions branded the proposal “ludicrous”.
The foreign secretary said yesterday that government departments would be “expected to act on the basis that we are leaving without a deal on 31 October”.
"All August leave will be cancelled unless I have a signed letter from the relevant permanent secretary saying that all preparations in his or her department are on time and on track."
In a letter seen by CSW, Garry Graham said Hunt’s plan showed a “startling lack of understanding of the breadth of work undertaken by the civil service”.
The Prospect deputy general secretary added: “In tone it also demonstrates a fundamental lack of appreciation and understanding of how hard civil servants have been working to support this government.
“With the House of Commons rising on 25 July and to return on 3 September, even the suggestion that civil servants will have a well-earned break snatched away over the summer smacks of hypocrisy and double standards.”
Graham said the civil service would be open to “isolated incidents” of having to cancel leave, he called for “assurance that that would be on a voluntary basis” and said any officials who do shelve their holiday plans for no-deal work should “be recompensed both in terms of time and any out of pocket expenses”.
He said the foreign secretary’s “galling” proposal could hit civil servants with children the hardest by “snatching” away long-planned summer getaways.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka meanwhile dismissed the proposal as "utterly ludicrous" and came after civil servants had “stepped up to the plate on numerous occasions” to support Brexit planning.
“Our members working in job centres and other government departments are not responsible for the mess inflicted on them and the country by the sheer incompetence of ministers.
“They will not put up with their leave being cancelled.”
And FDA general secretary Dave Penman told CSW’s sister site PoliticsHome: "The idea that you’d cancel the annual leave of 400,000 civil servants in August – 95% of whom are not involved in Brexit preparations – having given permanent secretaries a couple of weeks’ notice of this artificial deadline is simply ludicrous.”
The row came as Hunt – who has insisted he would only pursue a no-deal Brexit "with a heavy heart" – unveiled plans to set up a new cabinet “task force” in a bid to hold officials' feet to the fire over no-deal planning.
The body would, he said, be tasked with rooting out "any areas where government preparations are insufficient", he said, as well as leading on financial support for industries hit by tariffs under a no-deal.
Hunt also pledged to set up a £6bn no-deal fund to help ease the impact of a hard exit on the farming and agricultural sectors.
'Whitehall landscape has ballooned'
Hunt’s announcement came as his rival in the Conservative Party leadership race, Boris Johnson, was rumoured to be considering plans to scrap or merge several government departments in a bid to save money.
Under proposals being drawn up by Johnson’s campaign team, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Transport and the Department for Exiting the European Union could all be abolished or merged into other ministries, the Telegraph reported today.
The former foreign secretary has not made any announcements about the plans, but has previously said he wants the Department for International Development to be subsumed into the Foreign Office.
And high-profile supporters of the PM hopeful have backed the idea of shrinking the number of Whitehall departments.
Andrea Leadsom, former leader of the House of Commons, said there was a “case for slimming down Whitehall” after Brexit, the Telegraph reported. “I’m certainly of the view that we need to merge some departments and we need fewer people in cabinet.
And former international development secretary Priti Patel said: “The cabinet needs to be smaller. The Whitehall landscape has ballooned and we should be in favour of decentralisation, thinking about how we can drive efficiency and outcomes. The current Whitehall set-up encourages institutionalised groupthink instead.”
However, work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd dismissed the idea that her department could be scrapped.
She tweeted: "Fold DWP? We’re a delivery department giving tailored support to people trying to get into work, with brilliant work coaches at 600+ sites. 80,000 staff and £100bn in pension payments across the world. Can’t imagine @BorisJohnson supports this unworkable ‘plan’ by ‘allies’."