Government isn’t ‘getting the best’ out of the civil service, Tory grandee says

Levelling-up agenda will require concerted action to mobilise departments, says former Wales secretary John Redwood
John Redwood. Photo: Parliament.uk/CC BY 3.0

By Jim Dunton

09 Feb 2022

Conservative Party grandee John Redwood has warned ministers they are “not getting the best out of the civil service” and cautioned that the government will need a concerted effort get department-by-department buy-in for measures that make up the flagship levelling-up agenda.

The former Welsh secretary said his experience with landmark reforms in the Thatcher years told him that securing policy support for particular measures from individual departments before bringing them together as an over-arching vision was better than setting out the vision first.

In an opinion piece for the ConservativeHome website, the MP said he had been well aware that the 1980s policy agenda of privatisation and low taxes had been “challenging” for the civil service and unions and that “some probably wanted it to fail”.

“I do not think the present government is getting the best out of the civil service,” Redwood wrote. “Ministers are key to changing this.”

He said ministers – particularly those whose government enjoyed a large parliamentary majority – needed to remember the full range of powers at their disposal, such as the ability to change the law if “old laws get in their way”.

“They can abolish quangos, appoint new heads, issue clear new public instructions to them which parliament may debate,” he said. “They can ask their departments to do more of this and less of that. They have the power of the purse and of the pulpit.”

Redwood seemingly questioned levelling up secretary Michael Gove’s November assertion that cabinet-level committees would be a strong way to coordinate cross-government work on the agenda to rebalance educational achievement, health inequalities and economic prosperity across the UK.

He said the “last thing” he had wanted in the 1980s was an overarching cabinet committee for wider ownership of the Thatcher agenda.

“That would doubtless have slowed and diluted what we wanted to do,” Redwood said. “It would have given critics of the whole idea a forum to debate the philosophy and sow doubts. Cabinet ministers would have been less willing to accept individual responsibility.

“Instead the PM and cabinet colleagues introduced the main ideas split by department, with the PM discussing with each of the relevant colleagues how they could pursue the key parts as stand-alone ideas within their areas.”

Redwood advised the current government to adopt the same approach.

“There needs to be similar commitment to levelling up department by department,” he said.

“Education will doubtless take responsibility for challenging targets for literacy, numeracy and qualifications. Health will need to think through how it achieves the bold aims on eradicating health inequalities by region.

“Transport has a major task to clear the jams and improve the trains in many places. Business and the Treasury need to give more thought to improving the UK’s competitiveness so more businesses start up and more investment is attracted.”

Redwood said the Thatcher government had been able to make “substantial and timely changes” without major constitutional upheavals or civil service reform.

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