11 June 2004
Senior civil servants at two key departments are struggling to meet Chancellor Gordon Brown's dramatic efficiency targets, putting in doubt Whitehall's ability to deliver the wider Gershon agenda, the sector's biggest union claimed this week.
The departments for Education and Skills and Work and Pensions, which are already committed to job cuts totalling 38% and 31% of their workforce respectively – around 32,000 posts – have been unable to identify the savings without affecting their ability to deliver key services, the Public and Commercial Services union said.
Flagship government policies, such as the joint DfES/DWP Sure Start scheme to eradicate child poverty, have already been adversely affected by the 'savage cuts' proposed, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka claimed.
The union believes that this makes a mockery of ministers' claims that the Whitehall efficiency drive – led by Sir Peter Gershon's all-encompassing study, which will feed into next month's Treasury Spending Review – will not affect frontline services.
Speaking at the annual conference of the PCS in Brighton on June 9, Serwotka also warned ministers that he would fight proposals to cull staff 'every step of the way'. He claimed that proposals for strike action were 'quite likely' to follow the Spending Review if, as expected, Gershon calls for around 80,000 job cuts.
The union could even seek a judicial review to prevent the cull.
The DfES denied that it was struggling to identify sufficient cuts to meet Brown's commitment. A spokeswoman said: 'It's too early to say – these cuts were only announced in March – but there has been no firm indication that we won't meet the target.'
But, speaking in Brighton, the union's DfES group president, Tony Conway, said managers had made a last-minute pre-Budget commitment to Brown to find an additional 700 posts to axe – they had initially identified 800 – and were 'now in a panic' because 'they don't believe the cuts can be made' easily.
The situation at the DWP, meanwhile, was described by PCS general executive member John McInally as 'chaotic'. He claimed managers had been hampered by a recruitment freeze on lower grade personnel and had also struggled to identify sufficient cuts without affecting services.
A DWP spokeswoman acknowledged that the 'suspension of recruitment' for some posts had had a limited impact on operations, but 'rebutted completely' suggestions that the department would not meet its target to slash 30,000 posts by 2008.
Earlier, the conference heard details of the 'unmitigated disaster' of DWP staff in Pembrokeshire, Wales, dealing with long-delayed benefit inquiries for residents in London.
Officials warned that similar problems could follow if the government forged ahead with plans to relocate 20,000 Whitehall staff from London to the regions – a key recommendation of Sir Michael Lyons' review, published in March.
But, in a close vote, PCS members chose not to oppose relocation outright, because it could benefit regional offices.
However, Serwotka warned that the union would withhold opposition to Lyons' proposals only if the government protected the number of jobs involved.