Talking point

The civil servants jobs cull: a ‘knee-jerk’ response to the cost-of-living crisis?

PM plans to cut a fifth of the civil service, or 91,000 jobs, within three years

“As a matter of basic courtesy”, it would have been better if civil servants had heard it from their bosses, said The Times. Instead, when they turned on their radios last Thursday morning, they learnt that the Government plans to cull a fifth of the civil service, or 91,000 jobs, within three years. Ministers have provided few details, beyond saying that they expect the cuts will save £3.5bn a year, enabling them to lower taxes; where the axe will fall is unclear. “The civil service has been told to come up with ideas.”

No doubt some branches of the state could be much more efficient: agencies such as the DVLA have become “flabby and intransigent”. And a good number of jobs, such as running the NHS test-and-trace scheme, have been added due to the “temporary demands of the pandemic”; cutting 91,000 would, the Government points out, merely return the civil service to the size it was in 2016. But inevitably, many frontline services will be trimmed. Which ones? The Passport Office and the criminal justice system, for example, are already struggling badly.

Is it really so complicated, asked Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. The fact is even this “modest initiative” is too tentative: the corridors of Whitehall need “a hurricane-force hosing down”. It’s blindingly obvious that whole swathes of the civil service are failing. Ministers should start by tackling the “institutionalised culture of absenteeism”, which is what has caused the “intolerable delays” in the processing of driving licences, passports and tax rebates. Too many staff are sitting at home “munching Hobnobs and gawping at daytime TV”.

Perhaps the Government could sack all the civil servants working from home, and “see if anyone really noticed the difference”, said Matthew Lynn in The Daily Telegraph. A recent survey found that only 27% of the Department for Work and Pensions and 31% of the Foreign Office, for example, are at their desk on any given day.

The civil service has grown fast in recent years, said William Atkinson on Conservative Home. But there are good reasons for that. Brexit, for instance, meant “a huge scaling up of some existing departments to cover duties repatriated from Brussels”. This plan would make sense if it came with a genuine wish to reform Whitehall. It doesn’t. It’s a “knee-jerk” response to the cost-of-living crisis, from a Goverment that is “fed up with officials”.

Boris Johnson loves the idea of a “war with Whitehall”, said Heather Stewart in The Guardian. He has been vocal in attacking what he called its “work-from-home mañana culture”. Is that sensible? If you really want to reform the civil service, it seems foolish to pit the civil servants against you.

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