The huge civil service cuts planned over the next three years were initially not set to be announced until the next spending review in 2024, Simon Case has revealed.
Appearing before MPs at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday, the cabinet secretary said plans to return the civil service to 2016 levels were accelerated due to “changing economic circumstances”.
“These reductions were actually something we were looking at for the following spending review but the cabinet decided to bring that forward,” Case said.
Case told MPs yesterday that the cuts would come from efficiency (“removing duplication”), transformation (“this will particularly be about the adoption of technology”) and prioritisation (“choices about what’s going to get done in what order”).
The cabinet secretary said ministers had been clear, however, that they would “not accept a fall in standards of public services” as a result of the cuts.
Case said he is speaking to permanent secretaries about how these cuts can be made several times per week.
In the 2021 spending review, published in October, the Treasury announced plans to reduce the non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25, and said this would help to fund frontline roles. Case told the committee yesterday this would have meant cutting around 20,000 jobs.
Government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg then pledged to go further with cuts, saying in February that he wanted at least 65,000 jobs to be removed.
This promise turned out to be an understatement when the prime minister announced in May that the workforce would be brought back to 2016 pre-Brexit levels, meaning around 91,000 job cuts, over the next three years.
The 2021 spending review sets out departmental budgets until March 2025, with the next review set to be published in autumn 2024.
Explaining why the job cut plans were intensified far in advance of the next spending review, Case said: “The civil service expanded significantly, by around 20%, after 2016, first of all for managing Brexit and subsequently for managing the pandemic.
“Brexit now has become largely business as usual. The pandemic is over and there is obviously the external economic pressures on the government.
“Ministers concluded that we have to get the right size for the civil service for that reality.”
Asked if he would lead by example and commit to a 20% reduction in officials in his private office, Case said “the centre of government must lead by example on this”.
“It would be totally wrong for the centre of government to be in the driving seat for demanding reductions elsewhere and not follow through itself,” he added.
Departments have until tomorrow to produce proposals for reducing their headcount by up to 40%.
Each department is responsible for producing its own assessment of how it can help the government to achieve its goal, with the Cabinet Office and Treasury coordinating the work.
The Times has reported on the ways that ministers and senior civil servants are trying to minimise the impact of the proposed cuts, with claims some departments are considering redesignating certain civil servants as "public servants" to remove them from headcount reduction targets.
General Secretary of Prospect Mike Clancy said the story “confirms a government in chaos, shackled to a cuts headline it could never deliver, causing disruption across the civil service”.
"It’s no surprise therefore that no minister has been prepared to meet the unions: no one wants to take responsibility for this mess,” he added.
A government spokesperson said: “As the prime minister has made clear, the civil service works hard to implement the government’s agenda and deliver for the public.
“Our focus is on having a civil service that has the skills and capabilities to continue delivering outstanding public services, which is exactly why we have changed recruitment rules to bring in the very best talent and are investing in the professional development of our people.
"It is crucial that all aspects of taxpayer spending demonstrates efficiency and value for money. It was right to grow the civil service to deliver Brexit and deal with the pandemic, but we must now return it to 2016 staffing levels and have asked all government departments to set out how this might be achieved."