The Government finally announces proposals for Civil Service Reform

The Government today announced their Civil Service Reform White Paper to Parliament. In my role as Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, I responded for Labour and the full text of my speech is below:

“I thank the Minister for his courtesy in providing me with an advance copy of the plan, and for taking some time to explain his thinking.

The British civil service is widely admired, and rightly so, for its core values of honesty, impartiality and professionalism, and that is why it is so worrying that in the past two years the Minister has presided over chaotic change, which has seen a collapse in morale and more than one in three of the most senior civil servants leaving voluntarily. We, in contrast, sought radical but incremental change in the service.

On accountability, management culture and increased flexibility, there is always more to do, and we will support and, indeed, welcome sensible reforms such as improving management culture, information systems and skills development. We especially welcome the drive to digitise. It is essential to promote this process so that we obtain the highest possible levels of productivity from all staff. How does the Minister see digitisation proceeding?

In an era of flexible networks, the civil service can be seen as over-hierarchical and bureaucratic, as well as operating within self-contained departmental silos. Will the Minister indicate his intentions in reducing hierarchy and bureaucracy? The civil service has often been criticised in relation to procurement, IT, the management of change, and project management. What plans does he have to improve performance in all those areas?

I note the Minister’s suggestion that there should be interaction between the civil service and the private sector, but will he confirm that he is not making a presumption that private sector experience is somehow superior to the service of the public within the public sector ethos? We welcome the increased accountability of the civil service to Parliament and his comments on the Public Accounts Committee. On public sector mutuals, will he ensure that more information is placed before the House on this matter in due course?

The Minister has proposed that the performance of the worst 10% of civil servants be addressed. What consultation has he had on that proposal, and when does he intend it to be introduced? Of course, we welcome the drive to improve the standards of management in the public service, but is there not a danger that he and his colleagues may indulge in a blame game? After all, the problems that his Government face result from the failure of Ministers, not of the civil service.

In identifying the worst-performing public servants, perhaps he might consider the proposal that he name and shame the poorest Ministers; I can see one of them talking to him on the Front Bench now. Perhaps he does not need to, though, because the court of public opinion has already rendered its verdict, at least in relation to the Secretary of State for Health. Given the double-dip recession, does he agree that at least the Chancellor of the Exchequer should now be placed in special measures?

Has the Minister done any U-turn on regional pay? Will he confirm that while there is nothing wrong with sensible local bargaining of the kind that we did when we were in office, we live in a single United Kingdom and the suggestion of large-scale regionalising of pay is divisive and should now be dropped?

The Minister has said that he intends further to reduce the size of the civil service and that the Government would cut back-office staff and not front-line services. Staff reductions on the scale that he has announced cannot possibly be easily developed. We are not talking about simple numbers on a page but real human beings facing redundancy at a time of high unemployment. These people have chosen to serve the public. How does he intend to deal with the human consequences of his decisions, and will he be engaging with the trade unions and other staff representatives in this process? His staffing estimates must be based on detailed risk impact assessments. For example, will the country be left vulnerable as a result of further cuts at the UK Border Agency, in the police service, or elsewhere? Will he agree to place in the Library copies of all departmental risk impact assessments of staff reductions?

On the sensitive area of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants, I have two concerns. The Minister proposes to formalise the process of seeking policy advice from outside agencies, and he intends that Ministers play a larger role in appointing permanent secretaries. We welcome careful progress on both those suggestions, but equally, is there not a danger that they might lead to cronyism and a dangerous politicisation of the civil service? What assurances will he give to the House that in engaging in the appointment of civil servants and in selecting external agencies providing policy advice, neither of those matters will fall into disrepute because of ideological, or even personal, favouritism by particular Ministers?

We welcome the positive proposals in the plan, but it will do little to correct the chaos that now exists in many Departments. After all, the point of reform is to make things better than they were before.”

Text taken from the full offical Hansard account here:

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