Starmer working on plans to tackle civil-service churn – and other news you may have missed over Christmas

Labour leader wants DGs to stay in post longer, Cummings claims Sunak offered him new No.10 role, and IfG calls for Spring Budget to be scrapped
Sir Keir Starmer Photo: Parliament.uk

By Jim Dunton

02 Jan 2024

A week can be a long time in politics, as prime minister Harold Wilson once observed. And a lot can happen over a 10-day Christmas break too. Here are three stories that emerged over the festive period.

Labour looks to tackle civil service churn

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is working with new chief of staff Sue Gray on proposals to reduce churn in the civil service, with a particular focus on higher-level roles.

According to the Financial Times, Starmer believes that the pace of job moves among directors-general and other senior officials poses a threat to the ability of a future Labour government to deliver on its priorities.

A Labour source told the paper: “If we are going to have a ‘mission driven’ government, that requires civil service stability. You don’t have that if you have directors-general moving jobs every 18 months.

“The system currently incentivises moving – it is seen as a sign that you are versatile and can take on any challenge – but it is ultimately not helpful for delivery.”

Gray, who is a former Cabinet Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities second permanent secretary, started work as Starmer’s chief of staff in September last year. Her brief also includes looking at ways that machinery of government changes could aid the delivery of the Labour leader’s cross-cutting missions.

In 2022, think tank the Institute for Government described the rapid turnover of senior officials as one of the biggest hindrances to delivering policy and planning for the future. It said that around 8.4% of senior officials had either moved jobs or left the civil service between March 2020 and March 2021.

Dominic Cummings claims Sunak offered him a return to government

Dominic Cummings, the hugely controversial former chief adviser to Boris Johnson, claimed over the weekend that he has twice met with current PM Rishi Sunak and held talks about returning to Downing Street to aid the Conservative Party’s chances of winning the upcoming general election.

Cummings wrote in a blog that secret meetings with Sunak had taken place in 2022 and in the summer of 2023, according to the Sunday Times.

Cummings, who left government in November 2020, said that on both occasions he urged Sunak to settle NHS strikes and argued in favour of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights.

At one of the meetings he also pushed for a tax-cutting emergency budget, with proposals including raising the threshold for the 40p rate of income tax from £50,271 to £100,000.

Cummings – who masterminded the Vote Leave campaign in 2016’s EU referendum and Johnson’s 2019 general election campaign – said his price for joining the Sunak team was that the PM must put his authority behind radical Whitehall reform.

He said Sunak had “wanted a secret deal in which I delivered the election and he promised to take government seriously after the election”. Cummings said he ultimately turned down the offer of a return to government.

No.10 said no formal offer had been made to Cummings. The Liberal Democrats have written to Sunak’s ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, calling on him to investigate the propriety of the meetings.

Institute for Government urges Hunt to cancel Spring Budget

Last Wednesday HM Treasury announced that the Spring Budget will be held on 6 March. On the same day the Institute for Government optimistically urged chancellor Jeremy Hunt to scrap the plan on the grounds that it would be “good for government”.

In a comment piece, IfG senior economist Olly Bartrum said government decision making is not helped by the relentless twice-a-year schedule of fiscal events.

He said the time pressures incentivised officials to come up with tweaks to tax and spending plans that might make for good lines in the chancellor’s speech but ended up increasing the complexity and uncertainty of the wider system. Bartrum said fewer fiscal events would enable greater strategic thinking.

He said the current system left little time to consider opportunities for working in collaboration with other departments.

“For a junior Treasury official keen for promotion, getting a policy idea into a budget can become a time-consuming incentive. The chancellor will love a small (and inexpensive) measure – for example a £10m competition for car batteries that they read about in WIRED – because it can be announced in the speech and will be within spending limits,” he said. “At an organisational level this translates into a mindset of churning out small but largely inconsequential policies. Tellingly, Jeremy Hunt boasted about having 110 'growth measures' at the Autumn Statement.”

Bartrum said moving to a single annual fiscal event would free up time for hard-working and highly knowledgeable officials and present them with different incentives.

“They could use their uniquely broad knowledge of the workings of government to identify opportunities for cross-Whitehall collaboration and/or work with departments to develop long-term strategies for their respective policy areas,” he said.

“Moving to a slower pace of decision making would allow the chancellor and the Treasury to take a longer view of the direction of the economy and public finances and implement more thought-through, larger packages of reform. This should be attractive as a way to increase the quality of policy making.”

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