Introducing the civil service’s Generation Brex

Written by Aron Cheung on 14 February 2019 in Opinion

As Brexit swells the senior civil service ranks, the government will struggle to meet its goal of moving more officials out of London, says the Institute for Government’s Aron Cheung

Photo: PA

One of Brexit’s unintended consequences has been to turn Whitehall into a recruitment hotspot. Since the 2016 referendum, the government has hired an additional 20,000 civil servants – reversing more than a fifth of the job cuts that happened between 2010 and 2016.

Unsurprisingly, departments on the front line of delivering Brexit are among those that have expanded the most. The Department for International Trade has grown by almost 70% since late 2016, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Cabinet Office have grown by roughly 40%, and almost 700 people now work at the Department for Exiting the European Union. The expansion of the civil service is also unlikely to end soon. John Manzoni, its chief executive, recently said that there are 5,000 additional Brexit-facing civil servants “in the pipeline” (adding to the 10,000 already working on EU Exit).

But Brexit isn’t the only reason the civil service has grown – the Ministry for Justice’s headcount, for example, has risen by 6,000 (or 9%) since June 2016. Most of the new staff are at HM Prisons and Probation Service, which has recently been combating rising prison violence.


The civil service is becoming more top-heavy

The expansion of the civil service has taken place mostly at senior grades. While the overall workforce grew by 2.5% between 2016 and 2018, the Senior Civil Service grew more than four times as quickly. Just below them, at Grades 6 and 7 (which include experienced officials with significant policy responsibilities), numbers are up by an even higher 15%.

Again, the starkest increases have been at Brexit facing departments. For example, at Defra the number of civil servants at Grades 6 and 7 has more than doubled, from 900 just before the referendum to 2,100 two years later.

Meanwhile, the number of civil servants employed at the most junior grades has continued to fall.

There are more civil servants based in London

Governments often promise to rebalance the distribution of the civil service across the country. In 2017, for example, the Conservative Party manifesto promised to move “significant numbers” of officials out of London and the South East, and the Government Estate Strategy published a year later included plans to establish up to 20 government office hubs across the UK.

But the growing number of relatively senior Brexit-facing officials is undermining this aim. The percentage based in the capital has increased slightly from 19% before the referendum to 20% in 2018, and the Brexit department is one of two based entirely in London (the other being the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport).

The top of the civil service is even more London centric, with more than two-thirds of the Senior Civil Service based in the capital.

The civil service is becoming younger

As staff numbers fell between 2010 and 2016, the civil service became older. The percentage of civil servants aged under 30 fell from 14% to 10% (partly due to recruitment freezes), and the median age of civil servants rose from 44 to 47.

But the post-Brexit intake of civil servants, while being concentrated at more senior grades, is also younger. The median age has fallen back to 46, and 13% of civil servants are now under 30. The youngest department in Whitehall is DExEU, where about half of the workforce is under 30.

“The Conservatives promised to move ‘significant numbers’ of officials out of London but the growing number of relatively senior Brexit-facing officials is undermining this aim”

The civil service is becoming more diverse

The civil service’s diversity and inclusion strategy states that to serve the public “effectively and fairly, the civil service must represent modern Britain in all its diversity”.

As it grows, the civil service has continued to (slowly) become more diverse. Women now make up 43% of the Senior Civil Service, up from 40% in 2016, while the percentage of civil servants from ethnic minorities and of those with disabilities is also inching up.

But while things are moving in the right direction, the civil service – particularly at the top – still does not reflect the population it serves. Only 8% of senior civil servants are from ethnic minorities and only 5% have a disability, compared with a working-age population where 14% are from an ethnic minority and 19% have a disability.

Author Display Name
Aron Cheung
About the author

Aron Cheung is a researcher at the Institute for Government who works on Whitehall Monitor, the IfG’s data-driven analysis of the size, shape and performance of government. He tweets @Aron_Cheung

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