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Civil Servants: Reduction of Numbers

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 24 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the proposals set out by the Minister for Government Efficiency to reduce the number of civil servants by 65,000 will require either (1) a reduction in government functions, or (2) the increased use of outsourcing companies and consultants.

My Lords, there was a significant increase in the number of civil servants employed to manage the temporary requirements of Covid-19 and preparations for leaving the EU. Given that the spending review committed departments to reducing Civil Service numbers to pre-pandemic levels, work is under way to ensure that the functions are working as efficiently as possible, to reduce the use of consultants and to manage the use of outsourcing companies.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is a little surreal to have made Jacob Rees-Mogg Minister for Government Efficiency, and that his explicit view that civil servants are time wasters who do not work hard enough does not help morale in the Civil Service or, indeed, Civil Service efficiency? Does he recognise that one of the major areas of government waste over the last three or four years has been the excessive employment of outside consultants? Is there now also a target for a reduction in the use of outside consultants, who cost twice as much or more per head as civil servants?

My Lords, I reject the first part of the question. I am absolutely delighted that my right honourable friend is bringing his insight to the Cabinet Office and I look forward to working with him. As far as consultants are concerned, yes, the Government are seeking to reduce consultancy spend. Central government and arm’s-length bodies spent approximately £1.5 billion on consultancy in 2021; that is why the consulting hub was set up last year to lead the consultancy reform programme. I can certainly assure the noble Lord and others that much attention will be given to that.

My Lords, if the Government wish the central Civil Service to be as effective as possible, whatever size it is, might they give a higher priority to reducing churn through appointments and postings, perhaps leading to greater stability, a retention of expertise and a greater and more effective corporate memory?

I think the noble Lord makes a very important point. There is a great deal of churn in the Civil Service and that reflects one of the things that the Government wish to address in order to give greater job satisfaction, to invest in quality training and to enable civil servants to deliver a modern work programme. One of the reasons to seek to squeeze out efficiencies is to enable us to invest in more front-line service and in exactly the kind of support referred to by the noble Lord.

My Lords, could I ask the Minister if he will ask his right honourable friend Jacob Rees-Mogg to direct his efforts to the DVLA where, we read, people are not returning to their desks in sufficient numbers, with terrible economic effects in terms of people having to wait a long time for their driving licences? Being at their desks rather than watching Netflix or on bicycles would be a great contribution to the economy.

I am delighted that I am not in a department where I have to defend the DVLA. I take note of what my noble friend says, and I think people will have heard the sentiment on that subject across the House.

My Lords, has the Minister noted reports that the number of Russian speakers in the Foreign Office staff has been reduced quite drastically over the past few years? Is he satisfied that the reductions in funding and staff for the Foreign Office, particularly in eastern Europe, have prepared it for the huge challenges that it now faces?

My Lords, I cannot claim to be an expert on the linguistic training policies of the foreign service. I would say that we wish to have a Civil Service that is adaptable, nimble and responds to challenge, and that should involve a better awareness of future as well as present challenges, and that is certainly one of the things that the efficiency programme will look at.

My Lords, have the Government made any assessment of the relationship between efficiency, effectiveness and efficacy?

I would say to the right reverend Prelate that there are two sides to this coin. One is an efficient service that is more capable of delivering quality public service—we all believe profoundly in the ideal of public service—in a satisfying, effective way. The answer is yes, but I would say that that is not only measured in numbers.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the great gifts of 19th century Liberalism to the present day was a Civil Service selected on merit and politically neutral? Is that still the central pillar of the Government’s approach to the Civil Service recruitment, and would such recruitment benefit from a real attempt at greater diversity, backed up by a strengthened Freedom of Information Act which would increase public confidence in governance?

There are a lot of questions there. I have great sympathy for the noble Lord’s first sentiment, which is the loss of Gladstonian Liberalism, which I think needs to be rediscovered a little on those Benches. As far as his other points are concerned, independence must be fundamental, and diversity in all its forms is one of the reason the places programme is intended to take the Civil Service into other parts of the country. Thinking outside the Westminster, Whitehall and London bubble is very important, because there are many insights further than a mile from this building.

My Lords, is it intended that there will, in the future, be monitoring set up by the efficiency organisation looking at the Civil Service?

It is intended that there will be ministerial accountability for the development and progress of the Civil Service. Each department is responsible for managing its employees, but overall central government functions will continue, and there will be central government awareness of the development of the programme, and ministerial attention will be given to it.

Can the Minister tell us of any work under way to assess what impact such an efficiency review would have on the Civil Service workforce in our nations and regions? One would hope that this whole review is not just a euphemism to reduce headcount, which may have unforeseen negative consequences for places beyond Whitehall, including those very same places being courted as part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Perhaps the Minister can reassure your Lordships’ House on this point.

My Lords, indeed, I am delighted to do so. Devolved Administrations have their own responsibilities, but as I said in response to the good and challenging question from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, we do need to go out into the regions, and we are taking the Civil Service to the north-east, to York—perhaps I should not have mentioned the word “York” in your Lordships’ House—and to various places across the country for precisely the sort of reasons the noble Baroness rightly said. We must have a diverse and national service.

My Lords, as we strive to get value for money for the taxpayer and we move on from the pandemic and exiting the European Union, can my noble friend indicate to the House if there is a cost differential between the peak and the target?

My Lords, there is not a specific target; there are overall financial targets, but as far as numbers are concerned, we are seeking obviously to reduce from what we have now. I think noble Lords need to understand that there are currently 475,020 full-time equivalent civil servants, as of December 2021. That is an increase of 2,350 even on the previous quarter. We now have over half a million civil servants on headcount, and I contend that in those circumstances it is possible to make reductions.

My Lords, given the Prime Minister’s emphasis on the importance of science and technology, as proved by his establishment of the new Council for Science and Technology, chaired by the Prime Minister, what is being done to increase the number of people with a scientific background in the Civil Service? We need an informed customer.

My Lords, I think that is another important challenge from those Benches. We do need to raise the quality of specialism within the Civil Service—though that is not to disparage the traditional humanities-led approach—and not only in the scientific area but in the business of handling data and other modern approaches. This is inherent in the programme, and I can assure the noble Baroness that I will take away her point on science.