Politics

We're trying to work here: Civil servants say government chaos means they can't do their jobs properly

The “machinery of government is coming to a grinding halt” said one DWP employee

After 45 days in the job, Liz Truss became the UK's shortest serving prime minister ever. Image: Number 10

The government merry-go-round is causing chaos for civil servants trying to deliver policies, the leader of the civil service union has told the Big Issue.

The Treasury has had four chancellors in four months, three different home secretaries have steered Britain’s security and immigration, and another prime minister is now on the cards after the resignation of Liz Truss just 45 days into the job.

“The lack of continuity and chaos is certainly disrupting the running of the government”, said general secretary Mark Serwotka, representing 150,000 civil servants who are members of the PCS union.

“When incompetent politicians flail around changing policies on the hoof, failing to deliver, it’s our members who take the flak on the frontline,” Swerotka continued.  

U-turns have been the defining feature of Truss’s short-lived reign, with the tax-cuts announced in ex-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget binned by new chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who also rowed back on  energy bills  support.

A DWP employee told the Big Issue civil servants in government departments are “frightened to implement what they think was previously agreed, because they don’t know if it’s still ok”. They added staff are “absolutely incapable of going and asking anyone for more funding or whether or not they’ve got a long term strategy”.

“The machinery of government is coming to a grinding halt,” they added.

“When we’re talking to our management about staffing levels, redundancy packages… they don’t know. You’re trying to get answers to what should be pretty straight forward questions, and they can’t tell you.”

The civil service is also facing the possibility of one in five job cuts after then minister for government efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg announced 91,000 job cuts during Johnson’s premiership. It had been reported that Liz Truss was set to waterdown the plans before her rapid departure from Number 10.  

“Morale is at rock bottom”, said the DWP employee. “Staff themselves across every government department have got this cull hanging over us, we’re asking: ‘Will I be part of this big cull? Will there even be a big cull?’.”

The FDA, the union body representing senior and middle management civil servants also voiced its concerns: 

“There’s no doubt that the continuous shifting in political priorities makes it difficult for (civil servants) to provide support to the government,” said Steven Littlewood, ​​FDA assistant general secretary.

“All the while, they’ve had Boris Johnson threatening to cut their jobs and Liz Truss threatening to cut their pay – plus the uncertainty of the upcoming Treasury announcements on public spending. It’s fair to say that morale is low at the moment, and many dedicated and long serving staff are wondering if it’s worth it.”

Both unions are calling on the government to invest resources in the civil service, including by employing more – not fewer – people, so that it is better equipped to run government services that are already struggling to meet demand. 

The multiple changes in leadership have also resulted in a breakdown of relations between senior civil servants and department ministers, Serwotka said, reporting concerns raised by his union’s members.

“Ministers more than ever are prepared to ignore the advice of the senior civil service, so you saw Priti Patel ignore the advice on the way she was treating refugees,” he said, referencing concerns raised by top civil servants on the legality of a policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The PCS is currently balloting its members over strike action, demanding a 10 per cent pay rise, £15 an hour minimum wage, and an end to the threat to also cut the redundancy pay by 33 per cent. The results of the ballot, and whether strike action will be taken, will be announced shortly after November 7.

The Cabinet Office told The Big Issue that the business of government continues regardless of changes in leadership.

A government spokesperson said: “We are incredibly grateful to the civil service for the outstanding job they have done and are continuing to do in serving the public. Ministers and departments across government will continue to deliver for the people that they serve.”

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