By Tevye Markson

13 Jul 2022

Experts discuss what will happen to the government's plan to reduce the headcount to 2016 levels

In the coming weeks, Conservative Party leadership candidates will be doing their level best to convince MPs they should be the UK’s next prime minister.

As they each argue why their policy platforms and personal strengths make them more qualified than their rivals, many civil servants will be watching closely for the answer to one question: will Boris Johnson’s successor press ahead with plans to put one in five of them out of a job? And what will happen in the meantime?

The commitment to cut 91,000 civil service jobs in the next three years is one of the last major policies announced by Johnson’s government. CSW looks at what we know so far and asks the experts about what they think will – and should happen – to the headcount reduction plan over the next few months.

Press ahead or pause?

Departments have now handed in their estimations of the impact cuts of 20%, 30% and 40% to their staff would have. Officials were set to begin scrutinising them in July and August, ahead of outlining departments specific targets and completing a civil service-wide plan in September or October.

Several departments have frozen recruitment in a bid to keep numbers from climbing, and to get a headstart on cuts that could prevent the need for redundancies later.

Little has been said yet publicly about how those plans are progressing in light of Johnson’s impending resignation. Department for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy permanent secretary Sarah Munby told her staff last week she would keep them updated “as we gain further clarity on the impact around programmes such as Civil Service 2025” – the government’s name for the headcount reduction.

Environment secretary George Eustice, meanwhile, has reportedly told staff civil servants job cuts need to be dealt with in “an orderly and sensible way that causes as little disruption as possible” and that he does not want people to have to reapply for their own jobs.

“You would imagine they might slow it down just because a new PM might come in with a different approach,” Institute for Government associate director Tim Durrant says.

“And obviously, you don't want to lose people to then have to hire people again immediately afterwards.”

But the Prospect and PCS unions say they have been told the Cabinet Office plans to continue with the schedule.

Unions met with Cabinet Office officials last week and say they asked for the cuts agenda to be stopped until a new PM is appointed and for ministers to then meet with them to discuss the policy.

“The official response was that they have a set of instructions and those instructions remain in place,” PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka tells CSW.

He says he thinks there will be “scope” for timetables to be adjusted, and that “at a minimum” the October deadline will be extended.

“But their official position is they remain wedded to the previous proposals,” he says.

Prospect union general secretary Mick Clancy adds: “The [Cabinet Office’s] formal position is that they are still operating to the instructions that they received, they have received submissions [from departments] and they will do work on this now over the summer, so that they can then present to the next administration what the analysis shows.”

When the new administration comes into power, they will be “presented – or confronted – with the consequences” departments have modelled of cutting up to 40% of their staff, he says.

“So in headline terms, nothing has changed. We are still dealing with a 91,000 job-loss proposition.

“But anyone who cares to look knows that the ground is shifting on that. It must do to some extent.”

The big question many are asking now, therefore, is not whether the next PM will cut jobs – but when and how many they are likely to cut.

A change in leadership, a change in vision?

There are currently six candidates vying for Tory leadership, which will be whittled down in the coming days before one is appointed prime minister on 5 September.

“Most of those contenders – those who are in the cabinet at least – have departments that have had to go through the painful exercise in the last month or two of identifying where they have to make those cuts,” IfG programme director Alex Thomas says.

“Truss, for example, said she wanted the Foreign Office to expand rather than contract,” he says. The foreign secretary reportedly wrote to Johnson in June rejecting a request to cut 900 FCDO staff – well below the 20% minimum officials have been asked to model for each department.

“So how that plays out, when they're thinking about what their priorities for government reform are, will be really interesting to watch,” Thomas says.

He adds that a lot will depend on whether Jacob Rees-Mogg – who has spearheaded the headcount reduction policy – remains in his current post. The government efficiency minister, who has backed Truss for the top job, said earlier this month that he would not stay in government under any PM other than Johnson.

But Rees-Mogg is not the only Tory who is supportive of civil service job cuts.

“I guess he's the main driver on this stuff but I'm sure there are a lot of people who think similar things,” Durrant says.

With the uncertainty ahead, former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell tells CSW it would “make a lot of sense to pause” the cuts programme for the time being.

“We’ve already seen from candidates a wide range of different policies being put forward – so you'd want to be flexible, and you’d want to be ready to get resources to where they're most needed,” he says.

“Since we won't know until the leadership election is over which policies we're talking about, it would probably be best to pause.”

What have the candidates said?

Several leadership candidates have already declared their ambition to make cuts to the civil service. Attorney general Suella Braverman says she wants to look at the “size of government department budgets” as a way to cut “multibillion-pound wastage” in public spending, while former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has promised “limited government” and“tight spending discipline”.

Before being knocked out of the running yesterday, chancellor Nadhim Zahawi said he wanted to cut departments by 20% – in line with the current target.

Another candidate, ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak, tabled plans to reduce the civil service to pre-pandemic levels in his 2021 Spending Review – which was then gazumped by Johnson’s pledge to cut 91,000 jobs.

Clancy hopes some candidates will seek to distance themselves from Johnson’s plans for a mass headcount reduction. Prospect and other unions have lobbied hard against the cuts – pointing out that, among other things, Brexit increased many civil servants’ workloads when regulatory powers were transferred from the EU.

“Anyone who's got the capacity to analyse knows full well that powers have been repatriated and several parts of the public service are, in any case, under huge strain,” Clancy says.

“The idea that you can cut between 20 to 40% of [staff], and if one area can’t meet its quota then another area will have to look at higher cuts, is simply preposterous. So stepping away will I'm sure be the inclination of some of the candidates, but that depends upon who wins and where they see the electoral advantage.”

Piling the pressure on

If the next PM chooses to stick to the plan, PCS and Prospect are both ready to counter. PCS is set to ballot members in September over taking industrial action over pay and job cuts.

“We have pointed out to [the Cabinet Office]: unless there is a change and people are prepared to meet and consult and negotiate, then our expectation is that the ballot will take place,” Serwotka says.

And Clancy says there is “a good chance” Prospect will start talking to branches about what form of action to take if there is no progress on job cuts and pay. Asked if this could mean strikes, Clancy doesn’t rule it out – saying the union will “take whatever form of action is appropriate to place pressure and if that's what members want”.

The next PM will have a choice to make – stick with the 91,000 cuts and let this Johnson target bind their premiership, or twist and start afresh with their own government efficiency policy.

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