Fifty-thousand civil service jobs should be moved outside London, a Labour Party-commissioned report has recommended – more than double the number the government is planning to move by 2030.
The report by former prime minister Gordon Brown calls the civil service too London-centric and recommends moving jobs into regional offices, councils and combined authorities. Some public bodies would also be moved outside London under the proposals.
Entitled A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy, the report's recommendation that the House of Lords be scrapped has drawn the most attention, but it also includes wide-ranging civil service reform plans.
The Commission on the UK’s Future report, released on Monday, suggests putting the relationship between ministers and the civil service on a formal statutory footing to make clear where accountability and responsibility lies.
It also recommends ensuring civil servants have more experience outside Whitehall, by changing the government’s approach to recruitment, training and promotion.
‘The centre has not delivered’
The current Conservative government has committed to moving 22,000 civil service jobs out of London and the southeast by 2030 through relocating central government roles to regional offices.
The Labour report says more should be done to give communities “greater control”, recommending a transfer of power and responsibility.
“The biggest positive impact will come when civil service jobs follow power and responsibility away from the centre to the towns and cities where it should rightly be held,” the report said.
“Moving staff who still work for central government will save money and it will widen the talent pool available to the civil service. Moving more senior staff jobs will expose more policy makers to life outside London and the southeast. But it does not go far enough," the report said.
Transferring 50,000 jobs out of London would save at least £200m per year, according to the report.
Experienced policymakers should be located either alongside or inside local government and combined authorities “to help build governance capability across the country”, it said.
“More and more senior jobs can be moved outside of London, all across the UK and, importantly, more senior officials must be become responsible to for the new partnerships and devolved bodies in England."
The report also said the growth of the civil service should be reversed as part of this transfer of power.
The size of the civil service has increased from a post-WWII low of 384,000 full-time equivalent employees in 2016 to 478,000 this year, which is just below the size of Gordon Brown's government after a six-year-long effort to reduce the workforce by 84,000 jobs. Sunak has scrapped Boris Johnson's plan to cut 91,000 roles, saying he is not in favour of top-down targets, but some reduction is expected.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has endorsed the report's recommendations. “Britain is one of the most centralised systems in Europe, and the centre has not delivered," he said.
"I don't want it to fall apart. I want us to build something new."
The report also outlines the potential for department functions, public bodies and agencies to be moved outside London, recommending a review of agencies and public bodies’ London headquarters.
The commission has suggested the following agencies and bodies as potential candidates: the Competition and Markets Authority; UK Debt Management Office; Government Internal Audit Agency; Valuation Office Agency; Government Actuary's Department; Charity Commission; Food Standards Agency; Courts and Tribunals Service; Office of Gas and Electricity Markets; Office of Road and Rail; and British Transport Police Authority.
The increase in remote working makes the case for retaining headquarters functions for agencies and public bodies in London “much weaker”, the commission said.
“Much of the contact which they will need with ministers, or even with legislators, can we know be very successfully done remotely,” the report added.
However, the commission acknowledged that “relocations are likely be disruptive both to the functions involved and to the staff affected” and suggested change will need to be “carefully and sensitively managed”. Operational functions which serve London and the southeast would not be moved, the report said.
The commission has also recommended devolving responsibility for job centres from the Department for Work and Pensions to local authorities, as well as giving them more control over planning, infrastructure and transport policy.
‘Put civil service-minister relationship on statutory footing’
The report backed calls from the Institute for Government for parliament to put the relationship between ministers and civil service into law.
The think tank argued in a recent paper that the civil service has been missing a clear statement of its role, definition, purpose, remit, leadership, governance and accountability. The think tank said confused accountability between ministers and civil servants makes government less effective.
Echoing the IfG, the commission said: “It is time to put the relationship between ministers and civil service on a formal statutory footing.
“Practice and custom are no longer sufficient. The public needs assurance as to where accountability and responsibility lie. A well-designed statute would for the first time guarantee the permanence, impartiality and objectivity of the civil service.”
Recent Conservative governments have looked into this issue, with Boris Johnson appointing Francis Maude this summer to examine "balance of responsibility and autonomy” between ministers and perm secs, although there has been no commitment to putting this on a legal basis.
The statute would define who is accountable for what between ministers and civil servants, require the head of the civil service to ensure long-term capability within the civil service to meet the needs of current and future governments, and enhance the role of parliament in holding civil servants to account, the report said.
“Today’s civil service is not in a good state”, the report added.
The commission says relations between civil servants and ministers are currently poor, with officials being subjected to “frequent, morale-sapping public criticism by politicians” that they cannot rebut.
It also accuses ministers of “openly interfering” in hiring and firing decisions of senior officials in a way that undermines the meritocratic basis of civil service appointments. This echoes a recent report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which criticised the government for appearing to treat the pre-appointments process “as a tick-box exercise”.
The commission also said the civil service’s Covid response and the Partygate scandal during the pandemic had raised questions over its competence and integrity.
‘There’s a world outside Whitehall’
As well as an exodus of civil servants out of London, the report argues that officials, particularly senior staff, have too little experience outside central government.
“The civil service, particularly in senior policy-making roles, has too little experience of the world outside of Whitehall,” the report said.
“There are too few scientists, not enough people with experience of industry, too few at the centre who have worked in local or devolved government, the health service or the wider public sector.”
Innovation is not rewarded and civil servants are moved around far too quickly to develop the necessary expertise in complex policy areas, the report adds.
The commission says the civil service can address this issue, with support from ministers, through changes to recruitment, training and promotion.
Reform programmes to date “have been too tepid and not pursued with vigour”, which "must change", the commission said.
The commission’s proposals include a “fundamental switch in approach” to recruitment to broaden the experience base in the civil service, “far more rigorous” training for civil servants throughout their careers and an approach to promotion “that is based on evidence of outcomes delivered”.
“No one should be promoted to the senior civil service unless they have worthwhile and extended experience of roles outside of Whitehall,” the report added.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak has pushed for a similar approach. During the Tory leadership race this summer he outlined plans to reform the civil service, including a pledge to "tackle civil service groupthink and deepen departments’ understanding of business" by getting all senior civil servants to spend a year in secondments or external placements in the private sector before getting further promotion.
The government said it had recruited a record 1,309 external applicants to senior civil service roles in 2020/2021. In May, the government pledged to advertise all SCS roles externally by default.
A government spokesperson added: "Civil servants do a fantastic job delivering for the public and we will continue to invest in their skills so they can progress in their careers and gain experience that will help deliver even better public services.
"We have already moved over 8,000 jobs out of London to ensure communities across the UK are better represented in government and we are going to go even further by relocating 15,000 roles by 2025.
"This is an important part of our drive to level up our communities by investing in them and bringing into the Civil Service people with a range of different experiences and backgrounds."