Whitehall focus Treasury review on collision course with Blairs

26 Oct 06
The Treasury will shortly publish strategies for policy and growth that will set it on a collision course with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Whitehall-wide reviews announced last week.

27 October 2006

The Treasury will shortly publish strategies for policy and growth that will set it on a collision course with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Whitehall-wide reviews announced last week.

Public Finance has learnt that Chancellor Gordon Brown will release details of the Treasury's long-term policy and economic planning, undertaken in preparation for next summer's Comprehensive Spending Review, before the end of 2006.

Other sources said that the information could form part of Brown's Pre-Budget Report to follow the Queen's Speech next month.

The timing is likely to deflect attention from, and potentially pre-empt, Blair's root-and-branch review of public policy, announced on October 19.

Blair's 'Pathways to the future' programme will be co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office. It consists of six working groups, set up to develop ten-year plans for key parts of public and foreign policy amid the challenges of globalisation.

The units will cover: the public services; economic dynamism; environment and energy; the role of the state; Britain and the world; and security, crime and justice.

Blair presented details of the review to his Cabinet colleagues last week – and his spokesman claimed that the programme was 'enthusiastically endorsed' by all there.

Each working group, the spokesman confirmed, would consist of senior Whitehall officials, ministers and 'those who have outside expertise to offer'. He added that the solutions to the UK's long-term challenges required everybody to 'look beyond Westminster'.

Consequently, each working group will consult with the public, private and voluntary sectors, and members of the public. The groups will report back to Blair in the spring.

Plans to announce Blair's review before the Labour Party conference were dropped amid accusations that Number 10 and the Treasury were at loggerheads over the issue.

The Treasury told PF in September that it had already undertaken a cross-government review as part of the CSR 2007, which will outline spending priorities for the next decade.

Critics have suggested that Blair's intention is to limit his successor's programme by committing future governments to specific policies before Brown's CSR is made public.

One senior civil servant said: 'It does seem strange that the Treasury and Number 10 are simultaneously conducting root-and-branch policy reviews. The potential for conflict and overlap is high.'

Other Whitehall commentators have suggested that Blair is equally concerned to limit the impact of Conservative leader David Cameron's policy reviews. Blair originally proposed four groups, with no plans to separately assess energy and environment policy or the state's role.

Cameron is set to publish the Tories' reviews over the next year and has gained significant public support through an increasingly 'green' approach.

Defra begins staff cull as efficiency targets begin to bite

The first compulsory redundancies under Whitehall's 84,000 job cuts programme were announced this week – leading trade unions to claim that more staff could be forced out as departments strive to meet efficiency targets.

Helen Ghosh, permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, confirmed to Public Finance that up to 21 wildlife officers at the State Veterinary Service would be told on October 27 that they would be made compulsorily redundant.

Ghosh said that the redundancies had been made 'with regret', but the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents 300,000 public servants, immediately threatened to co-ordinate Whitehall-wide industrial action to oppose further job losses.

When the 84,000 job cuts target was announced as part of Sir Peter Gershon's 2004 efficiency review, all major departments declared their intention to avoid compulsory redundancies. But a firm commitment was never made.

A PCS statement published on October 23 warned that the cuts at Defra 'could be followed by more, leading to a serious deterioration in industrial relations'.

The union's national executive council will meet next month to discuss its opposition to the ongoing job cuts, which it claims has led to deteriorating services and low civil service morale.

A PCS spokesman said he feared that departments with large numbers of posts still to axe before 2008 — such as Work and Pensions — could 'soon be forced into compulsory redundancies'.

The union claimed that axing wildlife officers would 'put the health of the public and livestock at risk'. The PCS said the staff 'provided a valuable frontline resource during the foot and mouth crisis' and government plans to combat bird flu.

But Ghosh told PF that it was 'alarmist and misleading to suggest that public health will be put at risk'. She said that the 'staff affected had been working almost exclusively on Defra's “randomised badger culling trial”,' which ended in March. Until now, the staff have been retained on full pay.

'Defra has always sought to avoid compulsory redundancies and we will continue to do so… However, no other jobs could be found to match the skills of the staff concerned,' Ghosh said.


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