Rishi Sunak halts plan for 91,000 UK civil service job cuts – but staff reductions could still be coming

By on 03/11/2022 | Updated on 03/11/2022
A photo of prime minister Rishi Sunak with chancellor Jeremy Hunt Photo: No.10 Downing Street flickr account
Prime minister Rishi Sunak meets with the chancellor Jeremy Hunt to discuss the upcoming fiscal event in the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

New UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has scrapped plans initiated by Boris Johnson to reduce civil service headcount by 91,000 posts, but cuts could still happen as departments are tasked with making efficiency savings.

Sunak wrote to civil servants yesterday, setting out that he would work to “make sure every taxpayer pound goes as far as it possibly can”, but added: “I do not believe that top-down targets for civil service headcount reductions are the right way to do that.

“Instead, the chancellor and I will be asking every government department to look for the most effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets so that we can use taxpayers’ money sustainably in the long term.”

Johnson’s top-down plan for cuts had been criticised, with experts warning that setting an overall target was not an effective way to deliver efficient government.

Read more: UK civil service to shrink by 91,000 jobs as Boris Johnson takes aim at ‘swollen’ Whitehall

Speaking in May at a Global Government Forum webinar on whether the cuts could be delivered, Rhys Clyne, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank, said they were “a blunt tool because they’re blind to the false economies that can be created in this process”.

He added: “They’re blind to the sort of costly boom and bust of contraction and expansion of civil service that we’ve seen throughout the civil service history and they’re blind to any increased use of contractors [who are not counted in the civil service workforce figure], such as in the government’s major projects where there might be issues created by understaffing.”

The move was also criticised by former senior officials Philip Rycroft and Dame Una O’Brien.

Rycroft, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, said the reductions, which were announced in May by former prime minister Boris Johnson, amounted to “using the civil service as a whipping boy” in light of political pressures faced by the government. He said the civil service is an incredibly resilient organisation but that he did not want it to have to go through such cuts.

“My worry is that this is a very politicised move, and you may wonder, therefore, whether the political energy will be there to see it through,” he said.

Read more: ‘These cuts will have to include frontline roles’: can the UK government reach its target to cull 91,000 civil service jobs?

O’Brien, former permanent secretary at the Department of Health, said that workforce planning works best when looking across the entire civil service rather than at individual departments.

She discussed a possible process for planning reductions, highlighting examples from history such as the late 1980s Next Steps programme and the 2004 Gershon review into public sector efficiency, which led to 2.5% savings.

She said there were a series of questions that were asked as part of the Next Steps initiative that could be used as the basis for decisions about the civil service.

“The questions that we used in those Next Steps reviews [were]: is this task needed at all? Does it need to be done by the state? If it needs to be done by the state, could it be done in another way? And can it be privatised?

“This is a sort of fundamental sequence of questions which have been refined over the years and are still available… and should be used when we come to look at some of these bigger challenges. These questions are really helpful when we come to look at the future of a department or a chunk of work in central government.”

Watch in full: Civil service job cuts: how will government identify them, can they be achieved, and what will the impact be

Following the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss, who resigned after a host of tax cuts she campaigned for caused market turmoil, chancellor Jeremy Hunt is to set out a new financial plan for the government on 17 November, which is likely to include spending cuts in response to the worsening economic situation.

However, some reduction from the current civil service headcount of around 478,090 full time equivalent roles is still possible, as the Cabinet Office confirmed government departments “have been asked to look for the most effective ways to maximise efficiency within their budgets”. Ahead of Hunt’s statement, departments are being asked to “identify how to deliver the best outcomes for the public as efficiently as possible”, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told the BBC.

The government also confirmed that the Fast Stream graduate recruitment programme is to resume next month having been paused under Johnson.

Read more:
Exclusive: experts on the impact of 91,000 job cuts in the UK civil service
‘A very curious own goal’: UK ministers criticised for civil service fast stream pause

‘Glad the government has seen sense’ on job cuts plan

The scrapping of the 91,000 target and announcement that the Fast Stream programme would restart has been welcomed by trade unions.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, which represents senior officials, said that the original plan was developed with “no honest analysis of how this would impact the delivery of public services” and was “always a recipe for disaster – I’m glad the government has finally seen sense”.

He added: “However, ditching the 91,000 target means little without that honesty from the government on how it will match commitments with resources. Ministers must also now take action to ensure that our dedicated public servants receive pay awards that properly take account of cost-of-living pressures, and recognise the vital work they do.”

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union that represents rank-and-file officials, said that “while we welcome the government listening to our arguments that the 91,000 job cuts were completely the wrong approach and politically motivated, it now needs to listen to us and accept we need more resources, not less. The briefings about cuts to public expenditure indicate they will do the exact opposite”.

PCS is balloting members on strike action, and Serwotka said this would continue as the government plans to impose a 2% cap on civil service pay increases, at a time of 10% inflation.

“So we shall continue with our national strike ballot, urging our members to vote ‘Yes’ as we seek to secure for them a 10% pay rise, proper resources, pensions justice and decent redundancy terms,” he said.

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect union that represents technical and specialist officials, said the fact that Sunak has reversed the cuts “simply underlines it was an arbitrary number announced without a plan to achieve it”.

He added: “We agree with the PM’s message today that cites ‘our brilliant civil service’ but due to the catastrophic mini-budget a month ago, public finances are in jeopardy such that the government remains hell-bent on another round of damaging austerity.

“Attempts to slash departmental budgets in real terms at this time will bring disaster for vital services and, despite this reversal on the 91,000 jobs target which Prospect and the other unions have argued for, it will leave many dedicated public servants still fearful for their jobs.”

Read more: Can new prime minister Rishi Sunak bring stability to UK?

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Lee Jones says:

    More efficiencies, eh? Always easy to hide behind an empty soundbite, or to claim that you don’t accept the premise of an argument, but eventually you get found out.

    Why not go after the billions wasted and is-spent/mis-appropriated during covid, or address the deficiencies in our energy policy and pricing schemes which have seen us put at the mercy of the energy companies while they make obscene profits at the expense of the population, without even a real threat of windfall taxes …… And why not reintroduce the 50% tax rate for ‘top earners’, and also attack the tax havens and their architects hiding within the City of London?

    Government for the people, and not the rich or their lobbyists, please.

  2. Elaine Green says:

    I’ve been a civil servant for over 20 years, I’ve gone from AO entry through EO, HEO and SEO – and in real terms I now earn less than I did when I was a part time EO doing 30 hours a week.

    Recruitment is ridiculous – you give examples of things you have achieved, but your experience, skill set and abilities are disregarded, you are shoe horned into a post and given training that is not fit for purpose. When I joined CSA – yes, them, at a time when excrement, razor blades and white powder were sent in envelopes – amongst other things – clients were putting names of ‘most hated’ staff members with their contact details and addresses on anti-CSA sites. I’ve been harassed by the guy who was one of the idiots who stormed the Houses of Parliament dressed as ‘superheroes’ saying they were being denied access to their children because of CSA. It was far from the truth, obviously I cannot post details, but his access had been stopped by the Court. We had clients point shotguns at our staff, clients beaten silly because their ex-partner had been told to pay more. Hidden and undeclared income – the partner had known all about the cash in hand jobs when they were together but couldn’t prove it when they had split. Sworn at daily, demonstrations outside the offices with people dressed as the pope, with a doll on a fishing rod covered in blood, KKK costumes, bomb threats, people storming the building. The highest salary I ever had their as an HEO was £26K. I had to move for career progression, and I regret it every day. I loved my job. I phoned a client and told her I had managed to get the first ever payment from her ex, who left when their son was diagnosed as being on the spectrum. It was £56 against a debt of thousands. It had taken me three years to get it. She burst into tears and thanked me, I had made her year.

    That is why we stay – not the pension, and certainly not the pay. Whichever department you work in, everybody connects to the mission of what we need to deliver to our clients. Whether it’s ensuring clean water, making sure food meets standards, dealing with Bees, plant and animal diseases, getting the right money to the clients when they need help, helping them find the right job, dealing with people trying to enter the country illegally, helping Ukrainian refugees enter the country – with their pets – getting them National Insurance numbers, places to stay. We turn up every day, sometimes working twelve days on the trot with 12 hour days, and deliver everything we can.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for the break on the staff reduction, but IMHO what we need is an overhaul, putting people with the right skills in the right place.

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