Civil service cuts ‘could cost UK its global leadership on climate change’

By on 15/05/2022 | Updated on 15/05/2022
COP26 president Alok Sharma
COP26 president Alok Sharma. Photo UN Climate Change flickr page

The UK government has been warned that plans to cut civil service staff numbers could undermine the country’s leadership role on tackling climate change.

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced last week that the government would aim to cut 91,000 civil service jobs in the next three years as part of efforts to “cut the cost of government to reduce the cost of living”.

The proposal would in effect reverse the growth in the size of the civil service since 2016, which has been part of the response to both the UK’s exit from the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic. Departments have been given a month to produce plans to drastically lower headcounts over three years.

The BBC reported that the COP26 unit in the Cabinet Office could be scrapped as part of the changes. The unit oversaw the planning for and the running of the COP26 conference in Glasgow last November, with personnel peaking at around 220 officials. COP26 president Alok Sharma said in January that around 150 officials would be retained to work on securing national commitment to the pledges made in Glasgow. However, the BBC reported that the number of unit employees has been further reduced to around 70.

The Glasgow Climate Pact is intended to keep global warming to within 1.5 degree celsius, but needs to be implemented by countries around the world. Experts have told Global Government Forum that cuts to the unit could hinder the UK’s efforts to build on the COP26 agreement in the handover of the COP presidency to Egypt in November.

Luke Murphy, the associate director for energy, climate, housing and infrastructure at the IPPR think-tank, told Global Government Forum that Sharma had “rightly committed to using the remainder of the UK’s presidency to protect and build on the Glasgow Climate Pact to show that the world is serious about the commitments made”.

He added: “To cut the staff working within the COP unit would send a terrible signal to the world that the UK isn’t serious about following through on its climate commitments. How, for instance, can the UK maintain the pressure, as it has promised, on developed countries to follow through on the US$100bn a year promised to support developing countries in tackling the climate crisis, if the COP unit has no or fewer staff?”

The costs of climate change are far in excess of the costs of the COP team, he said, adding: “It must be maintained if we are to show that, in the words of the COP26 president ,’promises made will be promises kept’.”

Tom Sasse, the associate director at the Institute for Government, added that there is “a huge amount to do to build on what was agreed in Glasgow and create a platform for Egypt”.

He added: “While it may have fallen from front pages, climate change remains the most pressing global issue we all face. If briefings about cutting the COP26 unit prove accurate, it would be a massive own goal for our climate leadership and Global Britain.”

A government spokesperson said that the prime minister and ministers are clear that the civil service does an outstanding job delivering for the public and driving progress on the government’s priorities. “But when people and businesses across the country are facing rising costs, the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and run as efficiently as possible,” they said.

GGF has approached the Cabinet Office for comment on the COP26 unit.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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