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Inside the year of woe behind the civil servants strike

Political turmoil made 2022 a year of frustration and powerlessness for civil servants.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio and Samir Jeraj

This article was originally published on 21 December 2022. It has been republished in light of the news that civil servants will take strike action on 1 February 2023.

Civil servants in Whitehall, and the rest of Britain, first realised Liz Truss was going to resign as Prime Minister the night before she took to her spiralled podium on Downing Street.

“Certain meetings got cancelled that the PM was meant to be chairing and we were like: ‘Hmmm‘,” someone who worked in the Cabinet Office recalls.

Staff in the Cabinet Office, which supports the prime minister and senior ministers, spent the following morning engaging in political birdwatching. At lunchtime ten or 12 of Truss’s advisers were seen sprinting from Parliament to Whitehall. “From where we sit, you can almost see the front of No 10,” the staff member continued, “so we were keeping an eye on who was going in and trying to guess what was going to happen.”

Cabinet Office staff saw the resignation coming early on in Truss’s 45-day stint as Prime Minister. The multiple policy U-turns that led to her demise were “met with quiet eye-rolls” while civil servants tried to remain professional and not violate the Civil Service’s apolitical brief.

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Staff at all levels quietly acknowledged the fragility of the government, but did not talk about it openly. It was like watching someone you care about spiral out of control, and knowing there is little you can do about it.

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In 2022 the UK churned through three prime ministers, four chancellors and myriad ministers. For civil servants, whose work supporting central government departments is defined by the government’s policy decisions, the political turmoil at the top has meant a year for frustration. Spotlight spoke to civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) and the Cabinet Office about how the Conservative Party’s infighting has damaged governance and policymaking.

It is against Civil Service rules to speak to journalists, so staff have been referred to anonymously.

The real problems began when Boris Johnson announced his resignation as prime minister on July 7 following a string of scandals. His end came after 62 – out of a total of 179 – government ministers, parliamentary private secretaries, trade envoys and party vice-chairmen resigned, gutting the government.

On the day he quit Johnson announced he would not implement any new policies during his final weeks in charge. As people were struggling and demanding action on the rising cost-of-living, Johnson would be leading a “zombie government” for the almost two months during which he was to continue as prime minister while a Tory leadership election took place.

“It was so bad,” the Cabinet Office source told Spotlight. “Even after the first resignation happened you already know this means big change.” The general collapse had a material impact on their team’s operations. “My team were trying to get policy agreed but they were going: ‘We can’t submit this piece of work because there is no minister anymore. They’ve resigned and we don’t know if there’s going to be a replacement.’” 

Civil servants continued to work through the summer recess that followed the Johnson administration’s downfall. Without a cabinet with clear policy objectives, however, many were “unsure about what to do”. The lull highlighted how much the work of civil servants “is to do with ministerial appetite”, the Cabinet Office source said. “To not have that for so many policy areas for nearly four months is really damaging. And it’s quite hard to not think: ‘Is what I’m working on completely pointless because the new minister is going to come in and just scrap it in a few months time?’”

At Beis civil servants were grappling with the energy crisis. Ministers, however, “basically communicated a view that they didn’t want to make any decisions”, one civil servant said. Policies and strategies that had only recently been put in place quickly went stale as outgoing, caretaker and then incoming ministers pondered their options, flirting with fracking and hydrogen as ways to solve the energy crisis. “That’s probably the hardest thing if you’re trying to plan things that are going take decades to do,” the source said.

[See also: I’m a paramedic – here’s why I’m going on strike]

Over the summer, as the leadership candidates battled it out, teams across the civil service prepared day-one briefs while trying to second-guess who would win: Truss and Rishi Sunak. Due to each candidate’s differing philosophies and allies, civil servants had to anticipate two potential cabinets and “suss out what [ministers] might want to do and what their priorities might be”, recalled the Cabinet Office source. A lot of people were “almost dreading the leadership election – just because it meant starting all over again”.

Once Truss was in No 10, and pursuing the “Trussonomics” that led to her disastrous mini-Budget in September, civil servants found that their priorities were not pursuing policy that provided “value for money”, as is their stated brief. Instead the question was “what can we announce that will help reconcile [government] with the public and boost, essentially, the Tory party image”, according to the Cabinet Office source. This way of operating became even more “frenzied” after the mini-Budget, they said, when Truss “stank of desperation”.

In a year that has had its fair share of controversial policies – including Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, saying it’s her “dream” to see asylum seekers deported to Rwanda – civil servants are finding it hard to enact proposals that are not only contentious, but often driven by one or two ministers. The Civil Service is meant to be an apolitical body that conducts research and provides “deliverables that ministers can then make a decision on, but that ministers are making a guided decision on”, as the Cabinet Office staff member put it. Now, “ministers [are] just coming in and saying, ‘I want to do X’, and civil servants are almost having to retrospectively engineer [proposals] so it looks as though that’s the right thing to do”.

The “partygate” revelations, which led to Johnson and Sunak, the chancellor at the time, being fined for breaking their own coronavirus laws at government premises, were compounded by key civil servants also being found to have violated the rules. Many of them resigned. Two weeks before the report by the senior civil servant Sue Gray on the lockdown-breaching parties in and around Downing Street, however, the Civil Service faced another reckoning – one that most of its 510,080-strong workforce did not see coming.

On the morning of 13 May it was reported that the government was planning to cut 91,000 jobs across the Civil Service. There had been no announcement to civil servants from HR. Senior departmental figures were briefed on the cuts late in the evening before the announcement, meaning they had no time to set up any support mechanisms for staff.

“Basically, nobody knew anything about this,” a worker in the DWP said. “The first that any member of staff knew about the risk to 91,000 jobs was by turning on the radio that morning, or putting on the television, or reading the papers.”

The government has since reneged on the target of 91,000 job cuts, instead urging departments to find “efficiency savings” – but “everyone [in the Civil Service] is now sitting and waiting to find out what the new version of the 91,000 cuts will mean”, the DWP source said.

As the biggest governmental department, the DWP is likely to suffer more than most. In March the DWP announced plans to close some of its offices, putting more than 1,100 jobs at risk. In November the department made a call for voluntary redundancies.

The closures of job centres and offices across the country means that morale is at “rock bottom” in the DWP, the source said. “At a time when we really do need to be at the top of our game as a department, and provide assurance and services to some of the most vulnerable – truly vulnerable – people in society, [we’re] just not able to do it, efficiently, because of this,” they added.

DWP staff in job centres are now among the “vulnerable” themselves, the source added. The PCS union, which represents civil servants, told Spotlight that around 40 per cent of its members working in the DWP claim the Universal Credit that they administer. 

Life has not been made any easier for civil servants by problematic working cultures. Current and former government ministers have been accused of bullying. Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, is under investigation for eight alleged incidents spanning his previous cabinet roles. The fact that there isn’t any “clear guidance about how ministers should behave, and what’s not acceptable” creates a “grey area”, said the Cabinet Office source.

The former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg’s crusade against the Civil Service’s post-Covid hybrid working arrangements – leaving “sorry I missed you” notes on the desks of people working from home – was also the subject of widespread coverage. Rees-Mogg took to the latter part of his brief as minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency with “an absolute passion”, said the Cabinet Office source.

In Beis, one staff member described the summer months as a “miserable” period in which morale hit a particular low. “You had the knowledge that the cabinet was basically now just the caretaker cabinet, the announcement of the intention to reduce the size of the civil service by a fifth, and then you also had HR and personnel stuff. There’s been a sort of gradual creep back towards discouraging people from working from home,” they said.

Disgruntlement is widespread around the Civil Service. In November about 100,000 civil servants, working in 214 government departments and other bodies, voted to strike over pay and conditions. The strikes began in the middle of December. Driving instructors and staff working at the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which administers payments to farms, began the industrial action, with major ports and airports also set to be affected.  

The majority of civil servants were only offered a 2 per cent pay rise this year. The union demands a 10 per cent increase to reflect inflation, better pensions, job security and that there be no cuts to redundancy terms. A representative from the PCS told Spotlight that the union was prepared to take more action throughout 2023 – “without a doubt”.

There is a forceful demand for change among civil servants, and there’s also anger – particularly over being embroiled in the Conservatives’ mistakes. “People say they can’t afford it [public sector pay rises]. We all know they can,” said the DWP worker. “A government that can write off billions of pounds on undelivered PPE and other support during the pandemic can afford to.”

Some civil servants are considering their futures. “Now when people ask me what I do, I actually feel quite embarrassed to say I work for the Civil Service,” said the Cabinet Office source. “I think the headline for me is that I used to love working for the Civil Service. Everyone I’ve worked with has been amazing. But for the first time I’m now debating leaving because I’ve just had enough – and I think a lot of people are in a similar boat.”

[See also: The legislative battles to watch in 2023]