UK chancellor caps size of civil service

By on 03/10/2023 | Updated on 03/10/2023
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt speaking with prime minister Rishi Sunak in October 2022. Photo: No 10 Downing Street Flickr
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt speaking with prime minister Rishi Sunak in October 2022. Photo by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street, via Flickr

UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt has announced he will cap the size of the UK civil service at its current headcount as part of a renewed government effort to reduce the number of officials to pre-pandemic levels.

In a speech at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, Hunt said that the UK had “the best civil servants in the world”, who had saved many lives during the coronavirus pandemic “by working night and day”.

However, Hunt said that the UK civil service headcount of around 488,000 civil servants was 66,000 more than before the pandemic.

“New policies should not always mean new people,” Hunt told Conservative party members in Manchester. “So today I’m freezing the expansion of the civil service and putting in place a plan to reduce its numbers to pre-pandemic levels.”

The chancellor said this would save £1bn in the next financial year, and he would not lift the cap “until we have a proper plan not just for the civil service but for all public sector productivity improvements”.

Hunt has asked his deputy, chief secretary to the Treasury John Glen, to undertake a public sector efficiency review with the aim of increasing public sector productivity growth by 0.5%, in order to stabilise public spending as a proportion of gross domestic product. The Treasury has said departments will now be asked to produce plans to reduce civil service headcount “over the long-term to pre-pandemic levels”, as part of the productivity drive.

Government documents produced after the speech said the cap would be in place for the duration of the current Spending Review period ensing in March 2025. The Treasury said the plan does not equate to a recruitment freeze as current recruitment campaigns will remain ongoing.

Read more: UK public sector faces productivity review

Latest UK government effort to cut size of civil service

Hunt’s announcement is the latest in a series of attempts the UK government has recently made to reduce the size of the civil service.

In May 2022, then prime minister Boris Johnson announced a plan to cut UK civil service headcount by 91,000. This target, which was intended to being the civil service headcount back to 2016 levels to reverse the growth following Brexit as well as the COVID-19, 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”.

Following Johnson’s departure, his short-term successor Liz Truss was setting plans for the headcount reduction target to remain, but Johnson’s 2025 target would not apply, and then when Sunak took over, he scrapped the target, stating that “I do not believe that top-down targets for civil service headcount reductions” are the right way to drive efficiency of spending.

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

‘So glaring arbitrary’: reaction to the recruitment freeze

Responding to the announcement, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said that “picking a point in time in the past and deciding that is the right level of staff to deal with the public sector challenges of the future is intellectually bereft”.

He added: “It is so glaring arbitrary that all it does is demonstrate that this is not a serious government.

“Governments are of course free to decide the size of the public sector, but ministers need to be honest with the public about the consequences of those decisions… What we need is a government with a clear agenda on what it wants to deliver, and a realistic assessment of what resources it needs to achieve that.”

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of the Prospect trade union that represents officials in specialist, managerial and professional roles, said the announcement amounted to a u-turn on Sunak’s pledge to abandon top down staff reductions.

The policy will “further undermine vital public services which are already struggling”, he added.

“We now have government ministers rushing out policies at Tory conference in a desperate attempt to shore up their own support from the hard-right of their party.

“This says more about the electoral problems facing the Conservative Party than it does about effectively running the country.”

He said the union has now demanded a meeting with ministers to convey “the real sense of alarm among their own staff that ministers have unleashed with this dangerous announcement”.

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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.

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