New Forest East



By Julian Lewis, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office

Whitehall & Westminster World – 18 January 2005

A Labour politician once commented that

“When the British public want to put their foot on the accelerator, they send for us. When they want to put their foot on the brake, they send for the Conservatives”.

He meant that as a compliment to the Labour Party, but – in terms of trends in the Civil Service – it is nothing of the kind. Yes, there has been growth under Labour: growth in the number of civil servants, growth in the cost of the Civil Service, and growth in its politicisation. There is a price to be paid for all three.

First, numbers: with the imminence of a General Election, New Labour is up to its old tricks of trying to pre-empt Conservative recommendations. Hence the Gershon Review and the promise to reduce Civil Service numbers by 40,000 – coincidentally, the same total as that of the extra policemen and women which the Conservatives are pledged to recruit.

Would Gershon have been set to work without the spur of the Opposition’s more comprehensive initiative led by consultant David James? Almost certainly not. The Government’s heart is not in it, as comments by both the Prime Minister and by Cabinet Office Minister Ruth Kelly make clear; and, because its heart is not in it, it is all the more likely to make a botch of the whole exercise.

Whereas the Conservatives intend to achieve a reversal of Labour’s over-expansion of the Civil Service, we are not going to take a hatchet to people’s careers. We will apply a freeze on Civil Service new recruitment, thus achieving major reductions with minimum pain by ensuring that natural wastage and voluntary redundancy lead to a steady reduction from day one of a Conservative administration.

The onus will then be upon the Civil Service to redeploy and reorganise its naturally reducing workforce more efficiently to meet its tasks. This is where another key difference from the Government’s approach will come into play. While any Labour reductions will simply increase the workload falling on each remaining pair of shoulders, the Conservatives will pursue our agenda for leaner and less intrusive government. It will be a critical issue at the Election  whether people are satisfied with the extent to which this Government has been taxing them more whilst permitting them less and less control over how they live their lives and spend their (remaining) money.

New Labour characterises its record as having increased “services” to the public – services which, it says, a Conservative Government would cut. Certainly, Mr Blair has increased the costs of the Civil Service – up by 27% in real terms since 1999. Yet, do people actually think that they have seen a comparable increase in the quality of the services they receive? Indeed, do they think they have received any significant improvement at all?

Next, costs: those who represent the main body of Civil Service personnel face a multiple dilemma. On one horn of it are the consequences of threatening to withdraw their labour. If they do this in areas which affect the poor and vulnerable, they will rapidly alienate public opinion. If they do it in other areas, they may imperil essential services with similar effects, or they may find their stance to be both ineffective and a precursor to vindictive Government retaliation. Alternatively, if they accept Government proposals, they will find themselves carrying a proportionately greater workload as the Government fails to slim down the tasks it expects them to fulfil. Now, in short, is not a time when it is much fun to be a civil servant.

Nor has it been much fun to operate under a Government committed to blurring, ignoring and, when it deems necessary, overriding the distinction between civil servants and politicians. Here I must make a confession: I have always been in favour of the employment of a small number of Special Advisers, having first come across this mongrel breed when a Deputy Research Director at Conservative Central Office in the 1990s.

In those days, the smaller Government Departments had a single Special Adviser, the larger Departments had two (one for the Secretary of State, the other for junior Ministers), and only the Treasury had three. These Advisers enabled the Ministers to have at least one person close by who could:

  • develop a degree of expertise in departmental issues;
  • legitimately take into account party political considerations;
  • “fast-track” not visa applications but enquiries and suggestions from the governing party’s political machine for the consideration of ministers who might otherwise be isolated by an impenetrable wall of professional bureaucracy.

Under Labour, the number of Special Advisers has grown to unacceptable levels. As with all aspects of “fat government”, the Conservatives would put it on a crash diet! We would also ensure, within the first hour of the first day of taking office, that not one of them would ever have the power to give orders to professional civil servants.

Never again would a Jo Moore or a Tom Kelly be allowed to import techniques of abuse and media manipulation which have plumbed unprecedented depths. Never again would a 94-year-old NHS patient be smeared as a “racist” because her relatives had dared to complain about sub-standard service. Never again would professional information officers be ousted for doing their jobs.

All this should be incorporated in legislation to set the Civil Service on a statutory footing. So incontrovertible is the case for a Civil Service Bill that the Government felt it necessary repeatedly to promise to promote one. Yet, despite all the work having been done in advance by the Public Administration Select Committee, which produced a draft strongly promoted by Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Oliver Heald, a Bill finally materialised only at the end of the eleventh hour. Many a crocodile tear will be shed on the Government Front Bench when it dies in the pre-General Election stampede.

Seven years of this Labour Government have shown the dangers of short-termism. It may have seemed a good idea at the time to fatten up the bureaucracy. It may have seemed a good idea at the time to put in a propagandist at the head of Press and Information departments. It may even have seemed a good idea at the time to multiply political “in-and-outers” and allow them to boss the professionals. But, if and when this Government bites the dust, it will be the undermining of former standards of trust, impartiality and truthfulness which will be seen as a decisive factor.

One more thing – as no article about the Civil Service is complete without the obligatory nod towards that greatest of post-war television satires Yes, Prime Minister – the question of selection on merit.

In fiction, it was a case of two candidates being put up for a bishopric so that the Prime Minister would have some limited room to manoeuvre. In practice, this Government hopes to dilute the principle of transparent meritocracy in senior Civil Service appointments by allowing ministers a choice from more than one candidate. This would allow political interference and the bringing into play of factors besides sheer ability.

A Conservative Government will have nothing to do with such corrosive manipulation.