People already suffering backlogs getting passports and driving licenses could be hit by further delays in a national strike over Boris Johnson’s controversial plans to ax thousands of Civil Service jobs.
The Prime Minister sparked outrage and dismay among officials and unions after tasking his Cabinet with cutting up to 91,000 jobs, slashing the service by a fifth to save £3.5bn a year to help cut the cost of living.
Unions warned national strike action was “very much on the table” as i learned that senior civil servants privately warned staff ministers would have to choose which services to cut despite their claims the move was “not a question of doing less”.
Officials said the announcement had already hit rock-bottom morale amid existing staffing cuts and a pay squeeze.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents frontline workers at 400 departments, is to hold an emergency meeting of its executive committee next week to discuss coordinated action, including strikes.
This could include walkouts by staff at the backlog-plagued Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), PCS said.
Staff across various Government departments dealing with problems in the Covid schools catch-up, student loans programmes, struggling to implement Brexit border controls, looking after courts and prison services, dealing with a “massive staff retention problem” in customs, and those issuing heavy goods vehicles licenses, could all also strike.
Paul O’Connor, head of bargaining at PCS, told i if the cuts fall across the board “it is unlikely – in the event that the Government doesn’t change course and that we were to take industrial action – that any of those areas would remain untouched”.
“Clearly when we come to look at the issue of industrial action, we will be honing in on areas that could hurt the Government’s operation and make them change course,” he added.
Downing Street was unable to say overstretched departments such as the Passport Office and DVLA would be protected from the cuts, saying it would be up to individual permanent secretaries and Cabinet ministers to decide and insisting “this is a Civil Service-wide target”.
The Prime Minister told the Daily Mail: “We have got to cut the cost of Government to reduce the cost of living.”
Government Efficiency Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg defended the plan, saying the job cuts would bring numbers back to 2016 levels after extra staff were brought in to help deal with the pandemic and the “aftermath of Brexit”.
He insisted the cuts were “not a question of doing less” but of “doing things more efficiently”.
But In an email to staff seen by iDepartment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Permanent Secretary Tamara Finkelstein said the plans would be a “considerable challenge” and would “require prioritizing what we can do and deliver”.
Jim Harra, permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, was forced to write to staff apologizing they heard about the cuts in the media first.
One source at an unnamed department that is already implementing staffing cuts under the current spending review said civil servants were being made to compete for permanent contracts Hunger Games-style”, with several officials going after each post in conditions that were “crushing morale”.
A whistleblower called Vanessa who works at the UK Health Security Agency, which led the UK’s pandemic response, told Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show it was in “complete disarray”, with lives put at risk due to job cuts.
An official at another department said: “It’s another kick in the teeth to hard-working civil servants across the country who have kept this Government running while politicians get pissed off and break their own rules.
“Is it any wonder morale is so low and so many talented, experienced staff are choosing to leave themselves?”
Sam Freedman, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said constant attacks on the civil service from Government ministers is having an impact on staff retention.
“I have never known morale this low, because of [these cuts] and the working from home stuff, plus the Partygate stuff,” he said.
“They have lost a lot of talent already and a lot of people are thinking about leaving. They are very demoralized. It’s not much fun being under attack all the time.”