THOUSANDS of civil service jobs are under threat in the wake of plans to cut numbers swollen by both Brexit and the Covid crisis – which has placed pay cuts and a jobs ‘headcount’ under ‘expenditure review’.
The number of civil servants has increased every year since 2016, it is believed, as more staff had to be taken on to address key issues that affected the UK over the past five years. But the new ‘crisis’ meant civil servants began to find themselves right at the centre of rows over home-working.
Trade unions as a result had to organise to hit back at calls that they return en masse or face punitive action such as pay cuts, amid concerns for the future of city centre businesses.
Among the firms that have grown the most under these conditions are the Cabinet Office, which took over certain responsibilities from the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU). But Transport, Education and the Treasury too have seen large rises in headcount.
Unions were then told that redundancies would be achieved by a halt in external recruitment for vacancies. But that came as civil servants who returned to Whitehall only faced further delays – due to risk assessments for coping with unvaccinated staff.
All government departments were then required to complete paperwork ahead of the larger scale return of up to 100,000 workers. And they were asked to come up with plans on how to make offices safe – despite the presence of staff who have not been vaccinated on medical or other grounds.
Trade union leaders meanwhile have defended themselves against ‘insulting and cowardly attacks’ on civil servants suggesting ‘mandarins’ wanting to continue working from home should see their pay docked.
The First Division Association (FDA) general secretary Dave Penman has also demanded reassurances from politicians that that was not government policy.
Meanwhile, the largest civil service union, the PCS, had been consulting with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on the impact of new announcements by government officials about lifting Covid restrictions, affecting members across every union.
Among the areas that have grown the most is the Cabinet Office – which took over many responsibilities from the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU). But Transport, Education and the Treasury itself have also seen large increases in their headcount, and have also recorded big rises.
Unions are said to have been told that the redundancies would be achieved by a halt in external recruitment for vacancies.
‘And now,’ the PCS union has said, ‘as has been the case in recent months across the jobcentre network, our members in public-facing roles are being placed at a disproportionate risk compared to their colleagues, due to DWP’s ramp up of face-to-face activity.
‘This has been particularly felt in jobcentres with thousands of our members forced to see customers face to face, despite the clear evidence that remote working has continued to deliver excellent results for those in receipt of benefit.
‘We have always understood and championed the importance of the public facing roles carried out by our members, but we are clear they must only ever be carried out in an environment that is safe for both our members and the public.
‘This is not currently the case in the view of your group executive committee (GEC).
‘In addition to front facing roles, we are also aware that a number of directorates within DWP are actively planning the “restack” of equipment in offices to enable a return to the workplace for members who have been working safely from home.
‘PCS is not against this in principle, but again insist this should only be looked at when it is safe to do so.
‘Our members across DWP have shown over the last year and more that they can carry on providing vitally important services to some of the most vulnerable in our society in the most extreme of circumstances.
‘Working remotely, many have shown the capacity exists to administer the benefits system and other crucial services without forcing our members or the public to place their safety at risk with unnecessary travel to and from our sites.’
At the same time the PCS is in dispute with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) over plans for increasing daily driving tests from seven to eight. The agency wants to introduce the extra test as part of a range of measures to deal with the backlog of tests that have arisen as a result of national/regional Covid lockdowns.
‘We believe this proposal is unacceptable and cannot rule out balloting members over possible strike action on the issue,’ said the PCS.
‘The DVSA ran limited pilots during the school summer holiday period, which demonstrate that it is possible to fit an additional test into the working day, but these pilots took place in the best conditions in terms of weather, daylight and traffic conditions.
‘We are concerned that:
- The introduction of an additional slot in the schedule would impact on driving examiners’ performance, leading to an increased risk of accidents.
- Many examiners will quit over the issue. More than 450 respondents to the members’ survey said that they would consider leaving the role/employer if the 8-test schedule is introduced.
- There will be a negative and significant impact on the well-being of individual members.
- The proposal might constitute a unilateral change to examiners’ terms and conditions.
- Examiners on part-time contracts could be adversely affected.’
Currently examiners have time slots that include an additional 5 minutes to deal with issues that arise such as welfare breaks. While this will remain, there is evidence from the trials that DVSA has carried out that this is coming under pressure.
The PCS has a number of demands. They write:
‘Meetings have been ongoing since the end of April, when the most recent lock-down rules enabled a return to driver testing in cars. DVSA management have engaged us on the practicalities but have so far failed to meet our demands that:
- A full timing study is carried out, independent of DVSA, to encompass our health and safety and well-being concerns.
- The scope, terms of reference and timetable are agreed with PCS and before the eighth test slot is scheduled
• Full, formal negotiations are entered into between DVSA and PCS on the contractual elements of the proposal.’