Details emerge of UK civil service job cuts – but minister backs away from 91,000 target

By on 31/01/2023 | Updated on 01/02/2023
Oliver Dowden walking through Downing Street
Oliver Dowden in Downing Street. Photo by Simon Dawson, No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

A senior minister has said that the UK government is to go ahead with plans for job cuts in the civil service due to “budget pressures” – but has indicated that these reductions will be based on “outcomes” rather than on meeting a specific target.

Oliver Dowden has told MPs that there will be reduction in central government headcount planned in the year ahead, but did not endorse former prime minister Boris Johnson’s target to cut 91,000 jobs – around a fifth of the total civil service.

Asked by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee whether the government was still committed to reducing the civil service workforce, Dowden said “’Yes’ is the short answer”.

“I’m determined to ensure we actually achieve a reduction… and a reduction in budget commensurate with that,” he said.  

Dowden is the Chancellor of the Dutchy of Lancaster – the second most senior minister in the Cabinet Office after the PM – responsible for overseeing delivery of the government’s priorities. He was part of Johnson’s cabinet when the last cuts plan was announced.

The aim of that plan was to bring the civil service headcount back to 2016 levels, before numbers swelled in preparation for Brexit and to deliver the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to those two events, there were around 384,000 civil servants in the UK. The number had risen to 479,000 as of last summer.

Read more: Rishi Sunak halts plan for 91,000 UK civil service job cuts

Dowden told the committee that “the only difference” between Johnson’s job cuts plan and the current one is that “we will be driven by outcomes”, suggesting significant reductions could still be on the cards. He added that budget pressures were the primary reason for cuts and that cost savings were “going to force better ways of working and certainly reduction in headcount as well”.

Dowden pointed to reforms driven by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, which saw functions previously undertaken by each government department brought together within the Cabinet Office. “That’s the way in which you protect output but can achieve headcount reduction,” he said.

Government keen to protect delivery, commercial and digital roles

Alex Chisholm, the civil service’s chief operating officer, told MPs on the committee that in order to maintain capability as the civil service shrinks, the government would try to protect project delivery, commercial and digital roles.

Despite a “huge increase” in the number of professionals working in those roles over the last decade, Chisholm said more were needed.

“When we’ve been doing benchmarking exercises with the highest performing organisations in the wider economy we find that actually roles like project delivery, commercial and digital we need more of rather than fewer.”

As a result, he said it was “very important… that we are careful to make sure that we don’t over-squeeze in those areas which are so important to future efficiency and performance”.

‘Using the civil service as a whipping boy’

Boris Johnson’s 91,000 job cuts target, announced in May 2022, drew criticism from former department chiefs and from unions.

At a Global Government Forum webinar held shortly after the plans came to light, Philip Rycroft, who had been permanent secretary of the now defunct Department for Exiting the European Union, said the plans amounted to “using the civil service as a whipping boy” in light of political pressures facing the government at the time.

He said bureaucracies “do have a tendency to expand” and that it was “perfectly reasonable” for governments to “apply the breaks from time to time”. However, he said that the 91,000 target was “essentially an arbitrary number” amounting to a “very odd way of doing your workforce planning”.

Read more: Exclusive: experts on the impact of 91,000 job cuts in the UK civil service

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak wrote to civil servants in November saying that while he wanted to ensure taxpayers’ money was being spent as efficiently as possible, “I do not believe that top-down targets for civil service headcount reductions are the right way to do that”.

Instead, he asked departments to “look for the most effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets”, against the backdrop of rising inflation. Those reviews and accompanying cost saving proposals were expected to be submitted to Treasury by the end of January.

Dowden told MPs: “If you look at the spending review settlements over the coming years, those are tight spending review settlements, which for most departments outside a small number of protected departments will see quite substantial reductions in their budgets. That will necessarily drive considerable efficiency savings, and I would expect to drive headcount savings as well.”

He said “nothing is off the table” when asked if ministers’ special advisers and private office staff could also be at risk of redundancy.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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