UK PM backpedals on plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs by 2025

By on 10/10/2022 | Updated on 10/10/2022
UK prime minister Liz Truss sits at a desk.
Photo Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

UK prime minister Liz Truss is expected to walk back on plans to cut a fifth of the civil service workforce by 2025 and instead reduce headcount gradually to avoid redundancies.

The government’s original plan to shrink its workforce to 2016 levels was announced by former PM Boris Johnson in May. Johnson said the civil service had become “swollen” during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Brexit is also understood to have increased headcount. In March 2022, the civil service comprised around 478,000 officials, compared to around 384,00 in June 2016 at the time of the EU referendum.

The planned cuts were being driven by Jacob Rees-Mogg, current business secretary and former minister for government efficiency, who called the plans “an opportunity for significant reform as well as savings” for the taxpayer. Under Truss, the headcount reduction target is expected to remain, though the 2025 target will no longer apply.

In 2021, the number of employees who left the civil service reached 44,000, though the 2025 deadline had placed pressure on government to use compulsory and voluntary redundancies to achieve its goal.

Now, rather than actively axe existing jobs, the government is likely to allow the headcount to thin over time. Rees-Mogg has suggested that government could freeze hiring and allow annual turnover to taper what it sees as the excess.

Read more: ‘These will have to include frontline roles’: can UK make 91,000 jobs cuts?

Recently appointed cabinet office minister Nadhim Zahawi called the original target a “blunt instrument”. He said that though the three-year timeline would save government £3.5bn (US$3.8bn) annually, redundancies would cost it between £6bn (US$6.6bn) and £7bn (US$7.7bn) in the short term. An earlier review of the headcount reduction plan by then cabinet office minister Steve Barclay estimated the cost to taxpayers of redundancies to be £2bn (US$2.2bn).

Moving goalposts

Departments were recently advised to find new efficiencies in their operations and submit growth proposals in support of government’s wider goal of boosting annual GDP by 2.5%, following chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini budget in September.

According to a government source who spoke to the Financial Times, Truss’s change of course could lead to the reactivation of the civil service fast stream programme, which was paused in June this year. The decision was described by Dame Una O’Brien, who led the health department between 2010 to 2016, as “a curious own goal” during a Global Government Forum webinar held earlier this year. She warned that scrapping the fast stream programme – which develops future leaders – would have management consultancies and other employers “rubbing their hands to think that they don’t have to compete with the civil service anymore”.

Read more: UK ministers criticised for civil service fast stream pause

Although the overall jobs-cut figure is expected to stay in place, Truss has not yet formally committed to it, though is understood to support the view that a smaller civil service would benefit taxpayers. Before becoming prime minister, Truss was foreign secretary, during which time she opposed a request to axe 900 roles from her department.

During her leadership bid, Truss had pledged annual savings of up to £8.8bn (US$9.7bn) by tweaking officials’ salaries to match living costs in their areas of work. However, she backed out of the promise after experts at the Institute for Government, a think tank, showed this target was almost as much as the total annual civil service pay bill of £9bn (US$9.9bn).

Read more: UK Cabinet Office to shed 25% of staff as part of ‘war on Whitehall waste’

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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