Civil service headcount still rising amid plans to cut more than 90,000 jobs

Cabinet Office says estimate of 91,000 jobs to be cut remains unchanged as union pledges industrial action
Photo: Henry Söderlund/Flickr

By Tevye Markson

15 Jun 2022

Civil service numbers are still rising despite plans to drastically reduce the headcount, the latest figures show.

The headcount (full time equivalent) has risen by around 4,000, from 475,000 in December 2021 to 479,000 in March 2022, according to Office for National Statistics figures updated this week.

The latest stats were published as a civil service union pledged to take industrial action to oppose the “deeply damaging” plans.

Boris Johnson last month announced plans to bring the civil service headcount back to 2016 pre-Brexit levels, which would mean an estimated 91,000 jobs would need to be cut.

The latest rise in the headcount does not change the Cabinet Office’s estimate for the number of cuts needed, CSW understands.


Letters sent to civil servants by cabinet secretary Simon Case and other senior government officials last month, explaining the situation to officials, used the 91,000 figure. This was understood as being a cut from the December 2021 figure to June 2016 as this would be roughly 91,000.

Asked if the latest figures mean 95,000 jobs will need to be cut to hit the same target, the Cabinet Office said this was not the case.

The quarterly stats “span a period prior to the headcount reduction target announced by the PM in May”, a spokesperson said.

Ministers have not specified exactly when in 2016 they consider the target “pre-Brexit” headcount to have been. If the “pre-Brexit” baseline is in fact March 2016, for example, roughly 92,000 would need to be cut.

The Cabinet Office declined to confirm whether the government is now seeking to return to the March 2016 headcount.

Prospect announced at its annual conference on Tuesday that it will coordinate an industrial response to the workforce reduction plan. PCS has previously announced similar proposals.

Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said: “The government has decided it wants to cut numbers in the civil service for ideological reasons and plucked this 91,000 figure out of the air.

“There is no rationale behind it, no plan to get there and they seem to have no idea what services they want to stop providing.

“These cuts will be deeply damaging to the country and the programmes that people rely on are going to have to end.

“The government must think again before it does terminal damage to a civil service that is the envy of the world.”

A Cabinet Office 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.”

Government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has said the easiest way to cut numbers would be to implement a hiring "freeze", saying nearly 40,000 civil servants leave their roles each year. This would still leave the government well short of its target, however.

The government is also set to halt recruitment to the civil service’s flagship Fast Stream graduate programme next year. There have been roughly, 1,000-1,300 Fast Stream recruits in each of the last three years. 

Departments, which are working to a 30 June deadline to draw up plans to reduce their headcount by up to 40%, have also been told that they may need to make compulsory redundancies.

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