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Civil Servants: Reduction in Numbers

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2022

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of reducing the number of civil servants by 10 per cent on the processing of applications by (1) the Passport Office, (2) the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and (3) UK Visas and Immigration.

My Lords, all departments have been asked to develop options for how we can return the number of civil servants to 2016 levels. As part of this work, departments have been asked to assess the impact of different options on the delivery of public services so that we can make informed decisions and focus resources on the right priorities. The work is ongoing in the Home Office and the Department for Transport.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but is she aware that at the DVLA delays have risen by 65% in the last year and that the waiting time for a new driving licence is now six months? It takes three hours for British passport holders to get through some of the passport checks at airports to get home and 10 weeks to get a new passport from HM Passport Office. It has taken three months and rising for a friend of mine trying to get a sponsorship scheme from the department of the noble Baroness for someone from Ukraine. Is there not one common thread here—bad management by a monopoly supplier of essential services? Does the Minister agree that, if a private company were providing these services, it would take on more staff to deal with the backlogs? Here we are reducing by 10%. Can she explain why?

My Lords, there were quite a lot of questions there. I will try and deal with some of them, maybe starting from the noble Lord’s first question about driving licences. There are no delays to the online application process for driving licences. The only delay in the driving licence system is for those with additional medical needs, and I understand that was because the PCS union went on strike and that caused a delay. Almost 99% of passports are being delivered in the timeframe of 10 weeks. I cannot remember the noble Lord’s final question, but I think I have answered most of it.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Randerson had to wait three and a half months for the renewal of her driving licence after it had expired, apparently because of her title, which does not appear on her driving licence, so I am not sure that it is true to say there are no delays. The highly regarded former head of the National Crime Agency has said she fears Ministers’ plans to cut civil servant posts could have a “devastating” impact on tackling serious and organised crime, which includes people smugglers, as the Home Secretary confirmed this afternoon. What impact will these cuts have on the ability of the NCA to tackle people smuggling?

Again, there are a number of questions there but regarding the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, I go back to the point I made previously: there are no delays in the production and delivery of driving licences, and passports are being done in 10 weeks. I listened to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, because there has been a lot of noise around reductions in the NCA, and she was absolutely clear that there are no reductions in NCA staffing. Anyone who has been involved in a large organisation, as I have, will know that you prioritise areas which need prioritisation and do not do a blanket cut across the piece.

My Lords, the need to change the structure of the Civil Service may be imperative, but I cannot understand why we are going to reduce the number of fast-track graduate entrants next year. Other companies are trying to increase this to increase productivity and influence change. Those at university have had a pretty tough time. Can the Minister confirm that the Government accept this suggestion, or is it still under review?

Is the Minister telling the House that, contrary to the experience of the vast majority of people in this country, including people I know, there is no delay in getting passports or in the visa and asylum-seeking system, and that the Government’s answer to this situation is to cut staff numbers by 10%? How on earth is that going to help? Will the Minister confirm that, actually, many people are waiting an inordinate amount of time for their passports? The last thing the visa and immigration system needs is more staff cuts.

I repeat that the areas that need more resource will be provided with it, and the figures I gave on passports within 10 weeks and driving licences are absolutely correct. However, there has to be recognition that new ways of working demand that we look at our workforce and decide how it is best served to deliver for that organisation—for example, in the area of automation.

My Lords, my noble friend has touched on working from home and trying to reach an accommodation with civil servants in this regard. Will she give us an assurance that civil servants who are working from home are not claiming and being paid a London weighting allowance?

What I can say to my noble friend is that the reductions will be laid out in more detail in due course. I cannot give her an answer, because I suspect that there is not one at this time.

Can the Minister provide figures for the effect of the Covid lockdown on passport applications, and of the rise or diminution in Covid lockdown regulations on subsequent passport applications?

During lockdown, there was a massive diminution in the number of people applying for passports. Last year, we sent out reminders to people that their passports were going to expire. Unfortunately, that did not result in an increased number of passport applications, but we are currently processing 250,000 passports a week.

My Lords, may I move to other agencies? At this time of increasing threats, can the Minister give us an absolute assurance that there will be no cuts in the staff of the intelligence agencies?

The security of our people is the number one priority for this Government, and the security and intelligence agencies will have the resources they need to do their job.

My Lords, the three bodies that have been mentioned—the Passport Office, DVLA and UK Visas and Immigration—all handle hard-copy sensitive documents. Therefore, on the point my noble friend made about working from home, there would indeed be a problem in that respect. Will the Minister please tell the House what proportion of employees in these three areas are now back in the office and no longer working from home?

My Lords, the Minister has referred several times to—or implied—an idea of planning the way that Civil Service numbers might be reduced. It is not clear to most of us whether there actually is a plan, but there is a number: 10%. Can she say what the magic of 10% is, and what the significance of 2016 is?

I think 2016 is when some of those numbers went up. The noble Baroness homes in on the point that planning is vital, and the health of the future workforce and the department’s ability to deliver depends on how we do those reductions. I have been involved in some of that work thus far.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, suggested that the private sector would hire more workers if it was involved in this. Does my noble friend accept that that might well not be true, because the private sector might get more out of existing workers, and it might indeed say that working from home is not acceptable and insist that they work in the office?

The noble Baroness is on a different planet from citizens’ experience in this country of service from both the public and private sectors. Has she tried trying to get through to British Gas or BT? We wait, wait, wait on the telephone. It is time we had a review of the way public and private services are being handled, and not look simply at cuts but at more efficient operations and the need, perhaps, to employ more people.

The noble Lord will not recognise this, but he and I are saying a similar thing: we all need to look at our workforces and make sure that they are fit not just for the present but for the future and the development of new technology and processes.