Jeremy Hunt calls for axing of civil service diversity roles – should HR be nervous?

Government considers cuts in a bid to downsize the public sector, but experts warn EDI roles are ‘integral’ to businesses

Credit: Christopher Furlong, Creative-Touch-DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference, chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt announced a freeze to the expansion of the civil service, with a plan to reduce its numbers to pre-pandemic levels.

Doing so could save “£1bn next year”, he said.

Hunt then turned his attention to diversity and inclusion measures, saying: “That means, among other things, changing our approach to equality and diversity initiatives. Smashing glass ceilings is everyone’s job – not a box to be ticked by hiring a diversity manager.

“But I’m going to surprise you with one equality and diversity initiative of my own – trust me, you’ll like this one – nobody should have their bank account closed because someone else decides they’re not politically correct. We’ll tighten the law to stop people being de-banked for the wrong political views.”

The Treasury has since announced it will conduct an audit of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) spending in the civil service, with the Daily Express reporting this could equate to 10,000 equality and diversity jobs being axed under new plans. 

The Treasury further announced that the chancellor, minister for the Cabinet Office and minister for women and equalities would jointly scrutinise whether EDI spending offered taxpayers “value for money”. 

Suki Sandhu, CEO and founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy INvolve, told People Management that EDI was “integral to a business’s success” and “critical” for workers, as highlighted during the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Covid pandemic. “While there has been meaningful and much-needed progress for DEI in business, it’s disappointing to see the government’s latest announcement around the review of EDI jobs within the civil service,” he said.

“Negative comments by prominent public figures can have a great impact on public perception of diversity [...] It’s critical that businesses push forward and remain focused on EDI initiatives in this time, to create both happier and more successful workforces.”

The business case for promoting EDI has been “long established”, Sandhu continued, with benefits including greater productivity. “Employees that feel safe and heard ultimately work harder towards shared company goals as well as increased creativity and innovation.” 

But he added that there was no “one size fits all” approach for firms looking to improve their EDI and workplaces must include a tailored approach to ensure workplaces remain fair and inclusive in the long term.

“Our advice to clients is to begin by assessing where they currently stand on their EDI journey – for example, through HR policy reviews and data collection from employees – and using this information efficiently to develop ambitious targets for EDI,” Sandhu said. 

“These targets must then be followed through effectively with comprehensive plans of action and accountability, involving the implementation of workplace training to educate employees on the importance of conscious inclusion, and implementing initiatives like talent development programmes and mentoring schemes to ensure high-potential talent have the equitable tools they need for career progression.”

Dianne Greyson, managing partner of Synergised Solutions, questioned what message deprioritising diversity initiatives sent to businesses. “EDI is important for employee wellbeing, retention, the business bottom line and for the UK economy. A good EDI strategy will take the needs of their employees into consideration when writing policy and procedures; they will also ensure that they have market advantage by recognising that the employees are their greatest assets,” she told People Management.

“Hunt will need to recognise that those 10,000 jobs are 10,000 people in real terms. In this economic climate, surely he must reconsider his actions.”

The government has been approached for comment.