The Ministry of Justice's Whitehall headquarters will be home to "hundreds" rather than "thousands" of civil servants under relocation plans outlined in Wednesday's Budget, the MoJ's permanent secretary Richard Heaton has said.
According to the latest statistics, around 2,400 of the Ministry of Justice's core staff – excluding agencies such as the HM Courts Service and the National Offender Management Service – are based in London.
But the Budget said the MoJ was working on "a major programme to create substantial centres of expertise outside the capital", with the Treasury promising that a move away from Whitehall would "reduce costs, access highly skilled labour markets in the regions and contribute to the Northern Powerhouse" devolution plans.
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The estate plans come after the core department was asked to cut its administrative spending by 50% over the course of the parliament in last year's government-wide Spending Review.
Appearing before MPs on the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday, Heaton – the MoJ's most senior official – said the administrative cuts presented a "challenging" target, and set out the department's three-pronged approach to making the savings.
"One way we will do that will be to achieve efficiency through contracts and use of contracting services and interims," he said. "The other will be to reduce staffing and become more efficient [...] And the other will be to employ people outside central London, which is a very expensive place to employ people."
Asked what the plans would mean for the MoJ's Petty France HQ, Heaton said that while the department would "obviously remain in Westminster", he wanted to ensure that, "in the long-term, only jobs that need to be done in central London will remain here.
"So we're talking several hundreds, but not several thousands," he added.
Heaton said the "useful" Petty France HQ would not be left "vacant" by the move, adding: "We would expect other people in government to come and join us as part of the Whitehall estate [...] We would occupy far fewer floors than we do now."
That ties up with the government's "Whitehall Campus" project, announced by the Cabinet Office earlier last year, which will see the state's central London presence cut from 54 sites today to 20 "core buildings" shared by ministries by 2025. That will be complemented by around 20 shared "Government Hubs" across the UK, which the Cabinet Office has said will help cut costs, boost working between departments, and help with the recruitment and retention of officials.
Heaton: devolution deal unlikely to result in MoJ staff moving
The Budget also saw another significant announcement on the future of the MoJ, with chancellor George Osborne saying that the department was preparing to hand new powers over the criminal justice system to Greater Manchester, as part of the government's wider decentralisation agenda.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is already set to gain powers over transport, housing, planning and policing after agreeing to have a directly-elected mayor. Heaton said that while the planned transfer of justice powers still required "quite a lot of detail to be worked out", it was likely to include giving Manchester more say over the location of court buildings; the education of prisoners; and "possibly" some element of prison spending on female offenders.
But Heaton said he did not expect a transfer of Whitehall-based MoJ staff to Greater Manchester to support the new deal.
Asked by Conservative MP David Mowat whether the devolution of criminal justice responsibility would "result in headcount moving", Heaton said: "I'm not sure it will. I'm not sure we can make the link between the two things. The devolution deal, will that require people to transfer from central government? I don't think so."
The location of civil servants has become politically contentious in recent weeks, with the opposition Labour party seizing on statistics showing a concentration of senior officials in London.
The party has also criticised the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) plan to close its Sheffield site by 2018 and focus its policy team in the capital, while HMRC's plan to move from 170 sites to just 13 regional centres has been attacked by the PCS union.
The debate is likely to intensify as more government departments seek savings in their day-to-day spending. Under the government's estate strategy, the overall number of sites occupied it occupies is set to fall by 75% over the decade, as part of what Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has called a "laser focus on cutting the deficit, supporting growth and providing more houses".
Heaton was also pressed on what the devolution of justice powers would mean for oversight of the criminal justice system, with Conservative MP Stephen Phillips warning that it could result in a "piecemeal" approach with "different standards of criminal justice in roughly the same geographical locations".
Heaton acknowledged that the accountability question was "a risk to watch", but made clear that he would remain ultimately accountable for the running of the justice system.
"It is vitally important that some aspects of criminal justice are done on a national basis," he said.
But he added: "The devolution approach of the government is to allow local voices and local intelligence and local join up. The current justice system is not just an end-to-end system for processing people through the system. It's also about local patterns of offending, local crime and crime prevention, rehabilitation, troubled families. So that will benefit from a local voice."