The government’s plan to axe 91,000 civil service jobs in the next three years would impact frontline services and could cost up to £2bn in redundancy payments, according to government insiders.
Boris Johnson said in June that returning the civil service headcount to 2016 levels could be achieved “without harming” public services but an internal review from the prime minister's former chief of staff, Steve Barclay has reportedly found this is not the case.
One government insider, who has worked on the Civil Service 2025 programme of job cuts, said it had become clear that Johnson had made the announcement without fully considering the consequences.
“You can only deliver 91,000 cuts by actual cuts to major frontline services,” they told the Financial Times. “There’s no way you can get to that number through efficiency savings or reductions in HQ staff.”
The 91,000 target would necessitate “serious cuts” to staff at HM Revenue and Customs, Border Force and HM Prison and Probations Service, another insider said. It would also not be possible to protect jobs outside London, they added.
Another insider told the newspaper that £2bn was being discussed as a “working assumption” figure of what compulsory redundancy payments as part of the axing of jobs would cost.
The Treasury has since "gone cold" on the planned headcount reduction after seeing what the cost and impact on public services would be, according to the FT.
Departments were asked following Johnson’s headcount announcement in May to model cuts of 20%, 30% and 40% to their staff. This work was completed at the end of June and will inform department-specific targets and a civil service-wide plan due to be published in autumn.
While Johnson will no longer be in power by then, the two candidates to be the next leader of the Tory Party, and therefore of the country, have both expressed support for reducing the size of the civil service.
Liz Truss said last month she would “get the private sector growing faster than the public sector, with a long-term plan to bring down the size of the state and the tax burden”.
She has also pledged to get rid of diversity and inclusion jobs.
But the foreign secretary reportedly pushed back against cuts to her own department earlier this summer. She reportedly wrote to Boris Johnson in June rejecting a request for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to lose 900 staff – well below the 20% minimum the government is seeking to slash across the board.
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak was the first in Johnson’s government to bring forward proposals to reduce the size of the civil service.
As chancellor during the last Spending Review in October – seven months before Boris Johnson announced the 91,000-job cutback – Sunak committed to reduce the “non-frontline” civil service headcount to pre-pandemic levels to help fund frontline roles. Cabinet secretary Simon Case said in June this plan would have meant shedding around 20,000 jobs.
The government has not since committed to protecting frontline roles as part of its headcount reduction drive.
The civil service headcount rose from 384,000 in June 2016 to 479,000 in March 2022.
No.10 and the Treasury have been approached for comment.