Ministers should be moved out of Whitehall to work in offices around the country, the UK’s outgoing Civil Service chief has said.
Sir Mark Sedwill, who steps down as Cabinet Secretary in September, suggested “territorial offices within England” – which would be led by senior politicians.
Giving a lecture at Oxford University, Sir Mark said work had already begun to move “more of Whitehall out to hubs and campuses elsewhere”.
“As with any reform, the key is to do it properly,” he said. “In this case, that means moving core – including ministerial – functions to the new hubs, not just the back office and operational activities.”
He said this, along with plans to move senior officials to the regions of the UK to help the civil service integration through the whole country, would be “the most ambitious peacetime reforms to Whitehall and the wider governance system since [post-war Labour Prime Minister Clement] Atlee.”
Sir Mark went on to say anonymous briefing against senior civil servants had been “demoralising and sniping”.
“It has definitely risen in the last few years,” he said.
But he insisted there was no link between him and two other senior mandarins departing within months of Boris Johnson’s election victory.
Sir Mark also suggested the number of ministers attending cabinet meetings should be slashed, saying: “Cabinet is too large and therefore a cumbersome forum for debate.”
He called for a cut-down Cabinet and greater use of sub-committees to allow for “feisty political debate” at the top of Government.
Earlier Downing Street defended plans to bring civil servants back to work in Whitehall despite Union bosses warning it could prompt strike action.
Civl Servants will be included in the Number 10 push to encourage people back to working in offices – a reversal of previous advice to work from home wherever possible.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, warned ministers would face “serious industrial unrest” if they pressed ahead with the plan.
But the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: “Just as we have advised businesses to do, we are consulting closely with employees on the change to the default that civil servants should work from home.
“This is in line with the guidance. Each department will need to provide assurances that Government work spaces are Covid-secure and that employees’ individual circumstances will be taken into account with no individual having to return where there are health reasons for them not to do so.”
He admitted it would be a challenge to push through drastic reforms to the Civil Service, while tackling Brexit, the Covid-19 recovery and climate change among other challenges.
He said: “Bandwidth would be an issue, but in my view trying to transform the economy and society through an un-transformed government system is unlikely to prosper.”
Mr Sedwill is thought to have been ousted last month by Boris Johnson and top aide Dominic Cummings as part of a plan to shake-up Whitehall.
Speaking earlier this month, Mr Johnson said: “Please don’t think that I in any way underestimate the brilliance of the UK Civil Service, they are absolutely fantastic,” he said.
“But maybe there are ways in which we can all learn together to do things faster, to have a real spirit of ‘can do’. I’m not saying that people don’t have that, but there’s an opportunity to learn from the crisis and to work faster.
“I think sometimes it’s a question of confidence and belief.”