In his first major interview since promotion to the top ranks of Government, Birmingham MP Liam Byrne tells Political Editor Jonathan Walker why thousands of Government jobs must go.
Liam Byrne joined the highest ranks of Government in October when he became head of the Cabinet Office and Gordon Brown’s so-called “enforcer”, tasked with getting Government back on track after a difficult year.
The MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill was picked because of his organisational skills, honed as an entrepeneur in the private sector before becoming an MP.
But recently, he’s been in the news for other reasons - following the publication of a memo he drew up for officials, as a junior minister in the Home Office,
Called “Working With Liam Byrne”, it included instructions on how he likes his coffee and mid-day soup.
In his first major interview since taking on his new role, Mr Byrne admitted he had gone “over the top” in his demands to officials.
But he said he was concentrating on efforts to save £30 billion in the public sector, as the recession squeezes budgets - even if that means axing thousands of jobs.
He said: “Together with Yvette Cooper at the Treasury I’ll be helping lead changes to the way that we deliver public services, so they are much more in touch, much more responsive and dynamic, and they are even better value for money in the future.
“Because when times are tough, people rightly expect the Government to tighten its belt.”
Savings could be made by creating central IT and human resources departments in Whitehall, shared between a number of Ministries and Government agencies, he said.
“It could well mean job losses in the public sector," he concedes. "In some departments like HM Revenue and Customs and the Department of Work and Pensions, there have been really gigantic programmes that have reduced the number of public servants.”
Last year, 26,000 civil servant jobs were lost - but the Government still employs 488,260 people.
“We now have the lowest number of civil servants since 1945. That’s how efficiently Government now delivers. But the truth is that we’re probably going to have to go still further.”
Although he has a wide-ranging brief to imporve the way Government works, the reality is that he has very little power to make colleagues in Government listen to him if they don’t want to.
“The only force I use is the force of argument,” he said. “My job is about bringing the combined force of Government to deliver results quickly.”
His experience as the first “minister for the West Midlands”, a job he did for around 16 months, has come in useful. As the Government’s co-ordinator in the region, he had no formal powers and had to rely on his ability to “bang heads together” to get things done.
In fact, the regional role hasn’t quite gone away, as Mr Byrne now chairs a new committee for the regions of England, designed to help the country get through the recession.
He has urged the rest of England to look at how the West Midlands coped with the closure of Rover in 2005, when agencies and politicians formed a partnership to protect jobs and stop businesses going under.
“The arrangements that have been set up in the West Midlands are leading the way across the country now. We have a culture of working together in the region that was really brokered in the difficult days after the closure of Rover.
“That model of the Rover taskforce is what I built on when I bought together
people in the region, and it’s a model we have now asked to be copied in every other English region, so that people are prepared for economic shocks.
“We know that this downturn will be painful, and if we are to keep it short and shallow then it’s crucially important that Government and the business community is acting together and acting together quickly.
“So the West Midlands has really pioneered these new ways of working right across the country.”
Another string to his bow is a role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster - making him responsible for managing estates across Britain, on behalf of the Queen.
The Duchy is the inheritance of the Duke of Lancaster - which dates back to 1351 - and became the property of the crown in 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, became King.
Although his role is ceremonial, Mr Byrne intends to visit some of the Duchy’s estates in Staffordshire.
“The Duchy of Lancaster is a big property protfolio that provides an income for Her Majesty, so I’ve got to sign off the accounts once a year. There is some quite innovative work the Duchy is doing, for example developing sustainable ruiral housing in some areas of its estate.
“There are some estates it holds in Staffordshire, which I’ll be trying to visit over the next few months.
“Although it’s princiuple purpose is to provide a certain amount of money to he Queen, it is doing some interesting work in regeneration.”
It’s been a rapid rise for Mr Byrne, aged 38, who only became an MP in 2004.
He now attends cabinet meetings, although he is formally not a member of the cabinet, and colleagues predict he has an even brighter future ahead.
But incidents such as the leaked memo to staff, written as he began a new job as immigration minister in 2006, don’t help. Did he cringe when he looked back on it today?
“Back in 2006, we were confronting a huge job in the re-organisation of the UK Border Agency.
“I was a very eager minister, my background being in the business community I have always believed in well-ordered arrangements around me in order to do the job effectively
“But did I go over top? Yeah, of course I did.
“But both me and my wife, and I think it’s fair to say my office, have had quite a good laugh over the amount of coverage we’ve got out of it over the last week.
“I never thought in my ministerial career that I’d ever be compared to Maria Carey, and I’m sure I won’t be again.”
He argues that he has much more to do in politics - and tacitly admits that 11 years of Labour Government have not solved the problem of poverty in major cities such as Birmingham.
“I came into politics because I wanted to help renew Britain’s inner cities. That’s a life-time’s work. It’s why I still carry on working so hard in Hodge Hill.
“I find that that I learn more delivering regenration in Hodge Hill than many other things that I do in Westminster and Whitehall.
“I joined the Labour Party at 15 because I wanted to see a fairer society in this country. I think Britain has got a lot fairer over the last 10 or 11 years but the world is changing very quickly and this new globalised economy has got huge opportunitioes for this country.
“But if we are to really seize those opportunities with both hands then the rewards of globalisation have to be fairly shared throughout British society.
“I think there are still too many poor places and too many poor communities in Britain. I think a lot of them are in our major cities, and what I want to do for as long as I’m allowed to carry on serving in politics is make sure the fruits of this new world help rejuvenate our great cities.”
LIAM BYRNE TIMELINE
1996-1997: As a successful entrepreneur and Labour activist, Liam Byrne advises Labour how to appeal to business leaders.
2004: Picked to fight Birmingham Hodge Hill for Labour following the resignation of former MP Terry Davis.
Labour’s majority is cut to just 460 against a strong Liberal Democrat challenge, down from 11,168 at the 2001 general election.
During the campaign, Labour brands Lib Dem candidate Nicola Davies “Nokia Davies”, as she works for a mobile phone company, in an attempt to play on local opposition to mobile phone masts.
2005: Labour’s majority increases to 5,449 in the general election, and Mr Byrne is made a junior health minister - an extremely rapid promotion for someone so new to the Commons.
2006: Mr Byrne becomes a Minister of State - a more senior minister - with responsibility for policing in the Home Office. Within a fortnight he is moved to become minister for immigration, placing him in charge of one of the most difficult and politically-sensitive issues facing the Government. He oversees a range of reforms to immigration rules, but comes under fire from some Labour colleagues for a perceived anti-immigrant policy.
2007: Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister and appoints regional ministers, making Liam Byrne the Minister for the West Midlands. Later in the year, the MP was fined £100 after admitting using his mobile phone while driving.
2008: Mr Byrne is appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office, and now attends Cabinet although he is not formally a member.