Digby tells an inconvenient truth

I have always said the civil service would work better if it was slimmed down. I have favoured natural wastage, to reduce it by around one fifth in a full Parliament, with no compulsory redundancies and no redundancy payments for the poor old taxpayer to meet. My experience as a Minister was we had more staff than we needed, and since then there has been a huge increase under this government.

Digby Jones makes me look quite moderate or feeble. He has just said:

“Frankly the job (civil service) could be done with half as many, it could be more productive, more efficient, it could deliver a lot more value for the taxpayer”

Anyone coming into government from senior business roles as Digby did and as I did knows this is true.

So what’s stopping them?

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34 Comments

  1. Stuart Fairney
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I guess the problem is, if you sack your client state, they may not vote for you. That and the fact it reduces state power. And when was the last time you saw a socialist give up some power?

    Now mandatory sunset clauses for all state bodies would help greatly. Just let them die a natural death…

  2. Lola
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    “So what’s stopping them?” – Captive voters?

  3. rugfish
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    The Unions for one.

  4. Tom Paine
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I normally live in Moscow as an expatriate Brit, but have been in England for the last month traveling between Chester and London. In London, there is a visible recession. A taxi driver told me he was barely covering his cab rental and thinking of quitting the game. He said he had not seen London so quiet in 30 years. I have certainly never driven around Hyde Park Corner so easily in 30 years myself, nor jostled with so few people in the London shops at Christmas.

    In Chester, however (apart from some job losses at the one major private employer – MBNA) there are no visible signs of a downturn. A high proportion of locals are dependent (one way or the other) on the state for their income. The recession is actually boosting their purchasing power. It is even making them feel good about themselves vis-a-vis the private sector sorts who (as they see it) are now getting their come-uppance. Their jobs (they believe) are safe and their pensions are secure, while those who have generated the wealth to support them are typically learning they have lost a third to a half of their pension pots and that their grandchildren are to be indebted (inter alia) to pay said state employees’ unfunded pensions.

    I think the new “schadenfreude edition” of the feelgood factor among its key voters is one reason why Labour’s poll ratings are not as dismal as they should be given the economic situation. Bear in mind that Chester, while it deteriorated badly under a now-dismissed Labour council, is still quite a nice little town by Northern standards. It is a long way from the squalor of nearby ex-industrial towns where these effects must be even greater. It is a potential Tory gain on a modest swing and not merely because the incumbent MP, Christine Russell, is a waste of the air she breathes. But this Tory target is still economically a “company town” for the state so be careful about such posts as this!

    Gordon Brown simply does not have the option to lay off 50% of this captive vote without losing office. So let’s not pretend we dont’ know the answer to your question “what’s stopping them?” More importantly, if you want such key marginals you need a better story yourselves for dealing with civil service bloat than “sack 50% now” (correct though that would be, if it were politically possible). The civil service is even bigger than you think. Many of my company’s employees provide no service, directly or indirectly, to our customers. They are there to collect taxes, enforce compliance with regulations etc. etc. They are state employees too and their wages are taxes by another name. A real attack on this problem would reduce their numbers by 50% too, but that would require de-regulation, which Labour has succeeded in making a bad word. It is just so much better at presentation that you guys are, even after discounting for their shameless and spiraling dishonesty.

    The British state is more bloated now than it was in 1978. Far too many voters have immediate personal reasons to fear its contraction. Hard though it is to say it, therefore, when the country’s parlous finances dictate harsh and immediate action, the Tories need a long-term, principled, fully-justified but **gentle** plan to throw state mission-creep into reverse. I think it would be better-received than you may think, especially if you can raise your pitiful game on presentation. Just as in the 1970’s, the working-people closest to this corruption (because subverting state funds to buy votes **IS** corruption) understand it best. Mrs T. knew that, but the Tory grandees didn’t. This time around, the grandees are in charge, so the situation remains firmly and infuriatingly ungrasped.

    The chance to triangulate the triangulators has finally arrived, guys, provided you can show the target voters a clear and plausible path to a different, more sustainable, future. You simply can’t just frighten them about losing what they have.

    • Patrick
      Posted January 16, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      That was wonderful – you need your own blog!

    • Stewart Knight
      Posted January 16, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      I don’t know which Chesrer it is that you are seeing, but it isn’t the 200 year old one where I live, and have lived in for 25 years. My business flourishes, but it is because it is niche. MBNA? An irrelevance that takes most of its staff from agencies. The major employer here is Airbus and that is not shedding jobs…yet. Not to mention Deeside Industrial Estate just two miles outside the city.

      Very few Government workers.

      That being said there is a marked slowdown in retail.

      I feel sure you wouldn’t build your argument around a false premise, so will assume you are referring to a different Chester where there is a large MBNA presence.

      • Tom Paine
        Posted January 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        I am pleased to hear you are in a different Chester, to which I wish every success. Mine is many times older than two hundred years, so I guess yours is in some parallel dimension where Gordon Brown is still “Mr Prudence.” I wrote sincerely from my own experience and that of my local family, friends and contacts (the businesspeople among whom would love to be in your mysterious niche).

        Some of my old school-friends work at Airbus so I certainly hope your “yet” remains valid for a long time. The comment was already long without listing all the businesses that have not yet laid off, but thanks for doing that. Isn’t Web 2.00 wonderful?

        “Very few Government workers” partly depends on your definition, I expect. My relative working for a “charity” which subsists on Government money and contracts, for example? Does he work for the Government? The local businessman I know who depends on government contracts and must dance to their tunes to keep them? Does he?

        I suspect you are simply blessed to move in different circles. Good luck to you. I would sincerely love you to be right and me wrong.

        • Stewart Knight
          Posted January 17, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

          You have your wish then as you are wrong and obviously do live in that parallel Chester where my typo made 2000 into 200, as you are probably aware if you are half as intelligent as you think.

          I, along with many others, wouldn’t count all and sundry who do work for Government in one way or another as state employees as you imply.

          MBNA is still not a major employer as you claim, and there are not nearly as many in State employ as you claim and life as not as rosy in Chester as you claim. Try spending more time here than in Moscow. The people in Chester and in the surrounding suburbs are hurting quite badly and certainly would not appreciate being told how the recession is boosting their incomes by someone who does not live here and makes outlandish and puerile claims based on hearsay. This quote, “quite a nice little town by Northern standards..” will make many people in Chester cringe and laugh out loud, and proves the point that you simply do not know what you are talking about.

          I move in circles where I meet ordinary and highly paid business people, and they are all hurting. Most if not all would take offence at the stupid claim that they are benefiting from the recession.

          Good luck with hits for your blog; you’ve made a good start and no doubt gained a few new followers.

    • alan jutson
      Posted January 16, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      What a very good assessment of the situation, and we will soon have more people who rely upon the State as more and more get made redundant.

      As I understand it more than half of the population in the northern part of the country are either working for, or are paid benefits or top ups by the state. If this happens elsewhere in the country then you are in very real trouble indeed as the State will own their soul (means of support).

      But then Mr Brown is all about mission creep, he wants to micro manage everything to his own agenda, which would not have been out of place in Russia or any other Communist Country many years ago. Speading wealth is not his Mantra, spreading State control is !!!!

      The sooner many wake up to this the better.

      • Bazman
        Posted January 16, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Makes you want to live in that free market utopia Moscow. If you laid off large numbers of the civil service how would the middle class social security system survive? Where would all the chaps work? This is all just leftie nonsense.
        Yes Minister script that writes itself.

        • Atlas shrugged
          Posted January 17, 2009 at 2:43 am | Permalink

          Very much like a Yes Minister script without the laughs.

          We must not be fooled into believing that nothing can or should be done. Much could be done to improve the situation quickly, if there was the political will at the top to do so.

          Or more to the point the people themselves assisted the next Conservative government to finally find there collective backbones. A Conservative government does not like protests anymore then any other government. However they certainly have a better record of paying any attention to them while in office then this current Labour government ever has, at anytime in the last 11 years. This time hopefully it wont be leftist students on a day off from lectures on the streets. It will be middle class England marching down parliament square.

          I very much suspect that our futures are as always completely out of our elected politicians hands, but the establishment would go into outright panic if the great mass of the tax paying majority hit the streets in numbers.

          Also

          The less truly ignorant and foolishly trusting the people become in the system in general, the less the establishment will continue to take the utter piss out of the people of this country. This simply because the cost of getting us to play their silly games by force, will become too high even for them.

          My advice is to not only stop saving or borrowing money. It is to not declare or bother to earn in the first place any more then you absolutely need to. Then there will be no excess anything for the buggers to steal anymore, so they will then have to leave us alone in prosperity and peace, for the first time ever.

  5. Mark Shillaker
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    a slimmed down civil service sounds good, but it will also need to be restored to some semblance of impartiality and independence – it has been undermined, bypassed and littered with political appointees and media wonks since Nu Labour came to power. Part of its function surely is to act as a brake on the prejudices and ideological excesses of those in power.

  6. Thatcher-right
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I strongly disagree with the ‘natural wastage’ approach to redundancies. It’s gives a depressing atmosphere in the workplace. People feel that they are being asked to do the same amount of work with fewer people. More importantly, the people you’re left with are the ones without the dynamism to move on from this demotivated work environment.

    More effective and ultimately more comfortable for all involved, is the ‘big bang’ approach. One department at a time is pruned to the required size and the people that remain are told very clearly what the new job is.

    …Oh yes, and any strike action should be considered as a compensation free resignation – with a threat of possibile pension impact.

    REPLY Natural wastage can be good for morale. It means the better jobs go to internal appointees.

  7. Bazman
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I take it Digers and his union the CBI. has the same insight into the bloated management structures that are being laid to waste during this recession?

  8. tim holden
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    They are unaffordable, and they have to go. It has to be said at the highest level, and it has to be done. The Redwood Plan is kind, and far too moderate, and was put forward at a time when kindness and moderacy could be considered. There is simply no possibility that young people will work in the future to maintain the Pensions Apartheid that has been allowed to develop – and once the full extent of this liability becomes clear, neither young nor old will accept the ugly privilege represented in this caboose to the gravy train of public servanthood. Equally, there is no possibility that the Brown Government will ever do anything about the problem. This issue is the biggest part of the poisonous legacy that Labour will leave behind.

  9. Neil Craig
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Indeed it does make you seem overly moderate – & him a Labour appointee too so they can hardly complain that what he says is extreme. I think the Tories should be plastering his words all over their leaflets & posters. It proves that it is possible to make the savings needed without getting rid of the nurses Labour/BBC calim to be concerned about.

    The only possible downside for the Tories would be questions as to whether they, under Cameron, have the viom to do something about it either. In a way it is good news for the country because it shows how much slack there is – enough that if the money were saved & put into something productive there can be no doubt we would be out of recession.

  10. Carl Gardner
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    One problem is that most of the schemes people dream up to “change the civil service culture” actually reinforce its worst aspects. Take “performance-related pay” for example. Sounds good. In fact, it means your boss, and only your boss, decides how good a thing you are (very important) and what bonus you get paid (not very important as it’s not much, a thousand pounds at the very most).

    What this means is that a premium is on the ability to manage your reputation upwards in the hierarchy, rather than on actual performance. Those at the top of the civil service are world champions at pleasing their bosses – the system selects them automatically. Innovation and especially saying unwelcome things – acting as a brake on power – are not really valued.

    I think it’s one reason ministers sometimes are not told bad news.

  11. adam
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    interesting character Sir Digby.
    He said on Straight Talk that deficit doesnt matter and Gordons only option is more debt.
    If only we could all adopt Digbynomics in our personal life, our spending wouldnt matter and we could pile on all the debt we need.
    Why, nobody would have to work anymore

    One swallow does not make a summer make

  12. Rare Breed
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    JR

    Privately, I think you might enjoy this:

    http://www.lazycivilservant.com/

    The guide is brilliant,

    Hat tip – Adam Smith Institute blog.

  13. Blank Xavier
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Arthur Harris, when he took over Bomber Command, immediately halved the number of administrative staff. Simply by fiat – he ordered staff counts reduced by 50%. That was that.

    It apparently did no harm and I suspect a lot of good – the interferenced caused by excessive bureaucracy and bureaucratic power was greatly curtailed.

    Frankly, I’d like to see Government replaced with a free market, which chooses things like law, funds policing and large scale infrastructure, etc. We’re not ready for this though, so I really think it wouldn’t work right now. We’ve not progressed enough from the simpler forms of Government, like Monarchy, to understand, as a nation, the idea of the free market as a form of Government.

    There are a number of things we, as a large group of people, need to achieve or agree on. Government is only one way of meeting those needs, and it is it seems to me a particularly bad way.

  14. Blank Xavier
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Oh – also – Cecil Parkinson’s book is essential reading in this matter. Parkinson’s Law.

  15. Magelec
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Stop all Civil Service recruitment now. Stop all Civil Service bonuses now. Stop the final salary recruitment scheme and start a money purchase pension scheme as most employees in the private sector are on.

  16. mikestallard
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    The huge number of Civil Servants and state jobsworths is dealt with above. However, this is only half of Digby Jones’ argument.
    It is the even more serious decay of parliament as well that we have to address.
    MPs are no longer satisfied with their appointment to represent their constituents: politics is now their career. If they manage to get onto the ministerial ladder, and keep their noses clean then, who knows, they might well get to the Top Table (whatever that is).
    It pays them to shut up and keep to the hymn sheet.
    Meanwhile, at the Top of the Top Table sits the Great Commmunicator, the brooding genius, who KNOWS.

    And that’s democracy?

    I want to say that the Conservatives do seem to be a mass of people who have got a life outside Westminster, despite the recent efforts of the party to relieve them of it.

  17. Gavin
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Didgy Jones is correct. There are huge savings to be had by making the Civil Service more efficient. Savings which would benefit the country greatly but unfortunately would be swallowed up by paying off Brown’s debt.

  18. david
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I know its off thread, but I do think as an MP within the Heathrow area, your views on the third runway are of some importance. Will you be making a statement of support for the decision or not? I’m sure you would not shirk such an opportunity.

  19. matt
    Posted January 16, 2009 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    It makes me laugh when politicians call for a reduction in public sector employees – bearing in mind those own largesse. It’s especially amusing coming from an MP the day after MPs ensured their expenses are now free from the public scrutiny and the irritation of the FoI Act. Obviously MP expenses are a matter of national security.
    Sorry John but I think I missed your blog on that particular issue. Good to see that in times of economic crisis some public sector employees have no shame in ensuring their own interests are well served.
    Reply:My party has proposed cutting the number of MPs, and I have circulated my expense details to my constituents.

    • adam
      Posted January 18, 2009 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      please dont cut the number of mps.

      there is plenty to cut if Dave wants cuts, try the EU for a start. sack Barroso. but dont destroy our democracy.

    • matt
      Posted January 18, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      John – I didn’t realise you’d done that – it’s a sensible and brave example to set some of your colleagues. What a shame the majority of parliamentarians don’t follow your lead – and why do you need the legislation that puts MP’s expenses on a par with matters of national security?

  20. Atlas shrugged
    Posted January 17, 2009 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    For the more ignorant among the public it would have been better if you explained by giving examples as to how much money is worse then thrown down the toilet, by having even one too many civil servants never mind tens of thousands too many of the, poverty creating blood sucking vampires.

    As you I am sure know John, it is not just the wages, expenses, offices, and pensions we have to borrow to pay for and then pay interest for eternity paying again for. It is the manner by which government departments justify their own existence by finding things to spend money on. Which can just as easily be measured in millions or indeed billions, rather then several hundreds of thousands per excess civil servant.

    ALL and I really do seriously mean ALL the creative power in this nation resides in its ORDINARY WORKING PEOPLE going about their own personal business making a life for themselves, that includes inventors and scientists. Excessive, which means anything above the absolute minimum, amounts of pen pushing parasites in any organization never mind a so called free country, is the first, and possibly the last nail in the coffin of a productive and free property owning liberal democracy.

    BTW

    John could you possibly find some time to read at least the second half of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It is a perfectly atrocious novel but you may learn something, that is very important indeed. It really does beat anything from HG Wells or George Orwell. Given WHO EXACTLY Ayn Rand was the girlfriend of and as she also later became one of the figureheads of libertarianism, of all things. It is the second most read book in American history next to the Bible for a highly salient very here and now reason.

    Our great industrialists and scientists have not actually been asleep for the last 40 odd years, they have been working very hard and very productively. But judging by the amount of new technologies available to the people over this time, they might just as well have been all virtually dead or locked up in an underground prison since 1969.

  21. rose
    Posted January 17, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Besides voting for their paymasters, public servants get paid according to the number of people under them, and the amount of money they are spending. This incentive to create more and more bloating of the bureaucracy, especially in local government, must be tackled. It is a cancer on the body politic. The routine front-line maintenance work like cleaning and gardening which should be being done isn’t being, because the prime purpose of the public service is now to perpetuate its own raison d’etre with more and more unreadable self-justification.

  22. Adrian Peirson
    Posted January 17, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Is there anyway we can get this guy into Parliament,
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=COtE1J5NMbo

    On second thoughts, Maybe the world would be better off if he were President rather than Prime Minister.

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=IAQmfjcF0cg

  23. Tom Paine
    Posted January 18, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  24. Dave
    Posted January 18, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Quite liked the description of Chester as “quite a nice little town by Northern Standards”. I shall hence forward refer to Woking as “reasonably clean by southern standards”.

    I used to work for a council. sorry I take that back. I once attended and got paid by the council for sitting on my backside and completing non-work. It was the most soul destroying inactivity I have ever taken part in and was actually worst than being on the dole.

    When you drive to your place of employment on a clear road with no speed restrictions and you find yourself driving slower and slower you know something is wrong.

    The wastage at the council was phenomenal, the lack of co-ordination beggared belief. Two departments in the same physical building ordered two non-compatible computer networks. Call me thick but I would order one compatible network and save on the economies of scale.

    Promotion was on the basis of length of time served and not on any form of merit.

    If this is what it is like a local level then I can well believe that 50% of civil servants could be got rid of.

    Sadly, I know that the 50% of cuts, if implemented, would be in front-line services and not the monolithic buereucracy.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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