Should the merger of government legal functions – the so-called ‘shared services’ model – be of concern to the lawyers affected? It isn’t scare-mongering to say that for many it should, even though the immediate effect may be minimal.
The shared services programme is separate from the cuts that Whitehall departments were told to deliver – cuts that take their expenditure down by 23% or more by 2015.
The shared services model aims to deliver savings by combining ‘back office’ functions such as HR, legal and IT – and in local government, some frontline services too. In local government it has had some notable successes, though savings are still dwarfed by the cuts demanded by central government.
Central government has a less satisfactory record, as the Commons public accounts committee concluded in July this year. The committee concluded that shared services had cost £1.4bn to set up, £500m more than expected, and in some cases ‘have actually cost the taxpayer more than they have saved’. Lessons, the committee noted, needed to be learned.
There is no reflection of that chequered history in the correspondence between Whitehall’s mostly-knighted civil service mandarins. Asked to feed back on the department for work and pensions’ experience of merging legal services with the treasury solicitors (TSol) and other government departments, permanent secretary Robert Devereux told his cabinet office peers it had ‘worked well’.
A spokesperson for TSol also had reassuring words – there were no planned job losses associated with the transfer, and lawyers could take their terms and conditions with them to their new home, if that is what they wanted.
In reality, these changes look more complicated. If lawyers are transferred to TSol, but continue to sit in the departments they advise most closely, it is difficult to see what has been gained. Equally, if there is no attempt to identify roles, especially management roles, that are duplicated in the merged function, an obvious saving is missed.
If the aim is to hold legal costs steady while demand for advice and representation rises, then perhaps a result of sorts can be shown.
What seems obvious from the Gazette’s checks is that legal functions will ‘merge’ according to the timetable set out, but that at the point of transfer much will remain to be sorted – structurally, with regard to any changed roles, and for lawyers’ terms and conditions.
The smart money must be on changes being fundamental. We are getting closer to deadlines for the objectives set for 2014 and 2015 business plans, with the space in which permanent secretaries blithely reassure one another with little reason vanishing fast.
And that public accounts committee report is both well backed-up and on the devastating side. Hands up anyone who thinks a permanent secretary is going to ‘take one for the team’, rather than act on such findings.
The scenario where no one even moves desk, there are no job losses or demotions, all terms and conditions remain the same – or improve! – and significant savings somehow fall out the other end of a notional merger process does not sound like the probable ultimate outcome.