The Daily Mail reports this morning that the civil service has been increasing in size:
“The surge in bureaucrats is led by the Department for International Development (DfID) which has almost 39 per cent more staff than seven years ago. While there were 1,600 civil servants at the ministry in the summer of 2010, there are now 2,220. This is the largest increase across all departments. In a sign that austerity is coming to an end, latest figures show that across Whitehall there are more than 390,000 officials, up 2 per cent over the past year. The Institute for Government think tank, which has analysed the official statistics, say staff numbers have increased for four quarters in a row for the first time since at least 2010.”
Naturally there will be plenty of apologists to say how “inevitable” this is. Brexit will be blamed. But that would seem rather simplistic. There are eight thousand more civil servants than a year ago. As the Institute points out the total number employed at the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) is 340. The Department for International Trade is also pretty modestly staffed.
There is also the narrative about Departments being “forced” to take on more staff due to pressure on public services.
Yet in the Department for Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government civil service numbers continue to fall.
The truth is that bureaucrats will always come up with self-serving excuses against reforms which entail their empires shrinking. Francis Maude, as the Cabinet Office Minister during the Coalition Government, made heroic efforts to overcome this. He had an impressive record of success. But he has been the first to say that he did not complete the task.
Writing on this site in June he said:
“We downsized the Civil Service by 21 per cent. We reformed procurement to open it up to UK SMEs, and renegotiated contracts with major suppliers. We exited hundreds of underused properties, delivered successful shared services after years of procrastination, and mounted a vigorous campaign against fraud, error and uncollected debt. Our digital programme, now replicated elsewhere in the world, got the UK ranked top in the world last year for e-government by the UN. Our open data and transparency programme, an essential tool in the reformer’s kit bag, led to a number one ranking for open government by three separate international organisations. And we knew in 2015 that we had only just begun to scratch the surface of potential savings. In December 2014, a document – published by a Conservative Chancellor, a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary and me – set out how by 2020 we could roughly double those savings.
“So instead of the handwringing about how “austerity” has to end, let’s get going with Austerity 2.0. This would be an unremitting determination to deliver the next round of efficiency savings. This requires resolute will from the very top of government, and strong central authority vested in a senior minister who can face down the obstruction and prevarication from the self-interested dinosaur tendency in the mandarinate. Everyone not employed in the public sector – and actually many in it – welcomes these savings, believing that when the government runs out of money it should first look to cut its own costs, just like businesses and families have to.”
The Conservatives belief in freedom should mean that cutting the cost of Government is not just a matter of eliminating the budget deficit – although that is essential. We don’t agree with Douglas Jay that “the man in Whitehall knows best”. It follows that if interference and regulation is kept to a minimum then fewer men (and women) will be needed in Whitehall to boss us about. Sir Oliver Letwin’s work on deregulation and Maude’s work on trimming civil service numbers were two sides of the same coin. Given the huge regulatory burden of the EU, the impact of Brexit should give an important opportunity to reduce red tape further.
David Cameron can be proud of his achievements in making the state leaner and more efficient. He was well served by Maude, Letwin, and others in this mission. But as Maude has emphasised, what really counts is the “unremitting determination” to continue with it. The figures reported this morning are a worrying sign that the political will is absent.