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Civil Servants (Gershon Review)

Volume 448: debated on Monday 10 July 2006

2. What head count reductions there have been in his Department since the Gershon review; and if he will make a statement. (83299)

Since 2004, staffing levels in my Department have fallen by 19,385 full-time equivalents. As a result, we are now two thirds of the way to meeting the target reduction of 30,000 set out in the Gershon review.

Will the Secretary of State guarantee that movements from the Department to sort out the mess in the Child Support Agency will not negatively impact on the service delivery in those departmental areas from where the staff originally came?

We certainly do not want that to be the result. We are recruiting additional staff to the CSA to deal with some of its problems, but overall it is right and proper that we pursue these efficiency measures in my Department. If we can carry them out successfully, it will save £1 billion a year for the taxpayer by March 2008, and that is the sensible way forward.

In welcoming the fact that the Secretary of State is on target to reach the necessary reductions, and echoing the point made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), is my right hon. Friend satisfied that there will be no reduction in services to our constituents? Many people still come to my constituency surgeries, and those of other hon. Members, who are concerned about the delay in processing their claims. Will he give us that assurance? By all means rationalise and simplify the service, but keep the front-line services as efficient and effective as possible.

That is absolutely the main focus of our objective in making these changes. I acknowledge that there have been times when we have not provided the level of service that we would have liked, but we are working hard with the front line to improve service delivery. Part of the reorganisation in the Department will see an extra 10,000 staff moved into front-line responsibilities, dealing directly with my hon. Friend’s constituents and those of other hon. Members.

The Secretary of State mentioned savings to the taxpayer. I would like an assurance that that will be the case, because many Departments are recycling the savings, so they do not appear in the taxpayer’s pocket.

In other Government departments—the Rural Payments Agency springs to mind—departmental heads, in pursuit of Gershon targets to reduce the head count, have got rid of some of the most experienced, talented and productive people and replaced them with low-cost, inexperienced staff from agencies, with all the consequent problems that we have seen in that and other departments. Will the Minister reassure the House that we shall not go through that bogus process in achieving any head count reductions in his Department?

We will not go through any bogus process. I believe strongly that it is possible to make such efficiency improvements without reducing the quality of the service that we provide to the public. Despite the fact that there have been problems in one or two parts of the country, overall customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high for the service delivered across the Department, and we need to remember that and ensure that it is our No. 1 priority.

Of course we welcome sensible use of technology to sustain and even improve services to vulnerable people. However, it is clear that many of them will have experienced—the Secretary of State has tacitly acknowledged this—serious declines in service delivery, including the initial meltdown of the service to jobseeker’s allowance claimants last autumn, continuing dysfunction in the CSA and continuing poor morale and industrial relations problems in the Department itself. In the light of all that, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that Gershon emphasises the maintenance of service quality as much as head count reduction, and does he share Gershon’s view that they are of equal importance?

Yes, I do, as would all hon. Members. The problems that arose last autumn have been addressed, and we have moved on since then. In making all these changes, it is of course essential that we keep as our No. 1 priority the service to the public and the customers whom we are here to serve. That will always be the Department’s priority.