Plans to cut civil service headcount ‘risk repeating Maude-era mistakes’

Union says retaining expertise and capacity in departments is “essential” to meet looming challenges
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By Jim Dunton

13 Aug 2021

Civil service union Prospect has warned ministers that embarking on a new drive to reduce staff numbers will jeopardise the ability of departments and agencies to meet ongoing challenges such as post-Brexit work and delivering on the government’s net-zero ambitions.

General secretary Mike Clancy was speaking after a report yesterday that HM Treasury is looking to reverse civil-service headcount increases since 2016, which have resulted in a net addition of around 70,000 full-time equivalent staff to the payroll.

The coalition government embarked on a programme of civil service headcount reduction under Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2010. It saw staff numbers reduced by around 20% by the time of the EU referendum in 2016, when think tank the Institute for Government said headcount hit a postwar low of 384,260.

Clancy, whose union represents professionals such as scientists, engineers and technology experts in the civil service, said the coalition-era staffing cuts had led to “indiscriminate deep headcount reductions and the loss of vital scarce skills and corporate memory”.  He said the cuts had resulted in “even more stretched” service delivery and dramatically increased spending on consultants.

“The mistakes of the Maude era must not be repeated,” he said.

The pressures of responding to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic saw civil service headcount levels rise to more than 450,000 by the end of March this year, according to the IfG.

Yesterday’s report in the Times said departmental perm secs had been warned to prepare for the increase to be reversed as part of this autumn’s Spending Review because the civil service’s current headcount was viewed as “unsustainable” and in need of “significant” reduction.

Prospect’s Clancy said that if the briefing – attributed to a “senior government source” and a “Whitehall source” –  was true, it showed ministers had failed to learn the lessons of the past few years.

“Dealing with the twin challenge of Brexit and Covid has demonstrated the clear need for a properly funded and fully staffed civil service,” he said.

“Achieving our climate goals is at least as big a challenge, for the whole of government, as Brexit and Covid have been.

“Retaining expertise and capacity will be essential. A smaller civil service will mean ever more responsibilities for already stretched workers, at a time when workload has increased because the civil service has now taken on all of the functions that used to be performed by the European Union.”

The Treasury has yet to set a date for the delivery of the Spending Review. It declined the opportunity to comment on the Times report.

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