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

By on 13/05/2022 | Updated on 13/05/2022
Picture of UK prime minister Boris Johnson at a cabinet meeting
Prime minister Boris Johnson at a cabinet meeting alongside the head of the civil service, Simon Case. Credit: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/Flickr.

The UK civil service could shrink by around one-fifth under plans revealed by prime minister Boris Johnson to cut 91,000 jobs in an effort to “cut the cost of government to reduce the cost of living”.

Details of the plan have been released today and include the government’s intention to reduce the civil service to the size it was in 2016. Following cuts set out in 2010, the UK civil service fell to a historic low of 384,260. Both the Brexit referendum and the coronavirus response later led to an increase in headcount. At the end of last year, there were 475,020 full-time equivalent civil servants.

Read more: UK civil service urged to develop workforce plan before making up to job cuts

The prime minister told the Daily Mail newspaper that the civil service had become “swollen” during the pandemic, adding that reductions in headcount would mean government could cut taxes.

“Every pound the government pre-empts from the taxpayer is money they can spend on their own priorities, on their own lives,” Johnson said.

The BBC said the plan was revealed to ministers at an away day in Stoke-on-Trent on Thursday, with departments being given a month to produce plans to drastically lower headcounts over three years as the government faces increasing pressure to tackle rising cost of living.

The BBC report included a government source’s indication that most of the cuts would be made through a recruitment freeze, as well as making ministers sign off on any unfilled role being replaced.

However, the minister for government efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has warned that compulsory redundancies may be needed. Speaking this morning, Rees-Mogg told the BBC that such an approach would not mean government would have to do less, but would instead work more efficiently.

“We’ve taken on quite a number of additional staff – indeed 91,000 – to deal with Covid and some of the consequences of Brexit,” he said.

“Those two issues are now fading. Therefore, we can get back to the numbers we previously had.”

Other areas for potential job cuts included stopping the work of the estimated 70 staff said to be still working on climate change conference COP26. However, civil service trade unions in the UK said it was unrealistic to expect government to work well with 20% less people.

Read more: Why do UK civil servants rank themselves as the least responsive government?

FDA general secretary, Dave Penman, said ministers would also have to choose “what the reduced civil service will no longer have the capacity to do” which may affect services such as passports, border control or health.

“Without an accompanying strategy, these cuts appear more like a continuation of the government’s civil service culture wars – or even worse, ill-thought out, rushed job slashes that won’t lead to a more cost-effective government,” he said.

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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.


  1. Lee Jones says:

    That’s fine, as long as there is a spotlight shone on the number of MPs we have, assessing their cost-to-benefit ratio, the size of their staffs which are also paid by the public purse, the diversity of those staff cohorts which invariably include friends and family members (also at public cost); and if we fundamentally address corruption and the mis-use of public money by government themselves, which may include the recent sell-off of the public share in the NatWest bank (sold at a loss for £1.2bn in March with virtually no media coverage), the farce of the Nightingale hospitals, the PPE contracts ….. shall I stop there ?

  2. Jon Ryder says:

    The fact that JRM has opted to go back to 2016 before Brexit just exposes the lack of thinking behind this proposal. I’m all for cutting staff, but only after a proper assessment of what it is government actually wants to do rather than telling each cabinet minister to go away and come back in 4 weeks with some hastily bodged numbers about where they can cut staff (bet it’s all in back office functions like HR and finance, which is almost always a false economy). The situation has changed slightly since 2016 and I imagine that there are other priorities government might want to resource – it’s not like the humanitarian response to Ukraine is going well.
    You have to ask yourself, would Google, Apple, Tesla, Barclays or Shell announce an arbitrary number of workers then tell each division to cut numbers to meet that? Nope, they’d actually engage their brains and do some analysis to work out what they needed. JRM just isn’t capable of that…

  3. George says:

    Totally agree with you. Though we should note that while the Nightingale hospitals were the result of not being prepared to deal with a pandemic due to many years of cut-backs in the NHS they are now being used to reduce the backlog of people on the waiting list.

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