What did Hunt’s civil service announcement mean? Your guess is as good as mine

With its arbitrary targets and savings based on mythical rates of headcount-growth, civil servants would be forgiven for thinking that the chancellor’s conference speech didn’t represent a serious policy from a serious government
Credit: PA/Alamy

By Dave Penman

05 Oct 2023

Without a word of a lie, when the chancellor stood up to speak at the Conservative party conference I was on a Teams call saying that over the last few months, the previously relentless attacks on the civil service had died down a bit. My phone pinged and it was my comms team alerting me to Hunt’s announcement about civil service headcount. One minute later another ping: Cabinet Office officials looking for an urgent catch-up.

Hunt is no Jacob Rees-Mogg, and he preceded his announcement by declaring that the UK civil service was the best in the world – at which point the only sound to be heard in the hall was delegates pulling the tumbleweed from under their seats. As they were doing so, he got to the red meat – £1bn of savings next year – and this was met with rapturous applause which says a lot about the party of government and how they’ve demonised the very people who directly work for them. Can you imagine Steve Barclay being cheered if he promised to cut the NHS? 

Hunt’s speech is a difficult one to unpick. Firstly, it’s a cap on expansion and not a recruitment freeze. Where are the savings then, you might then reasonably ask? The Treasury press notice makes for interesting, if not easy, reading. Bear with.

“A cap on headcount at its current level will be introduced with immediate effect – a decision that will help cut the cost of government and could save up to £1bn by March 2025 compared to the current trajectory.”

Wait, what? The *terms and conditions apply bit at the bottom says. “Estimated savings are based on the latest available headcount for full-time employee numbers (457,000 as of June 2023) from the ONS (excluding devolved administrations), as well as a projection of 490,000 in March 2025 based on the current trend in headcount growth since 2016.”

It would appear – and I stand ready to be corrected – that Hunt has projected that the civil service will grow over the next 18 months on the same trajectory it has since 2016 (you know, since when we’ve had Brexit, Covid, a war in Europe and a cost-of-living crisis). Therefore, by not growing at this mythical rate we’ll save £1bn.

A £1bn cut in civil service budgets could equate to a 7-8% cut in staffing over 18 months. That’s more draconian than the good ol’ austerity years of George, Dave, Nick, Beaker, Mick and Titch. So is Hunt serious? Or is it just smoke and mirrors to get the Tory faithful on board?

He also announced he was driving down headcount to pre-pandemic levels. "New policies should not always mean new people,” he said, which I suppose is, at least, an acknowledgement that sometimes it might.

So while the rhetoric was toned down, the idea that government picks an arbitrary date in the past and decides that’s the right staffing level for the civil service is, of course, right out of the Rees-Mogg playbook. As was, of course, the value for money audit of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion spending he also announced. Culture war lite.

Hunt avoided Rees-Mogg’s obsession with Brexit (though the idea that no Brexit-related work was created after 2019 is a bit of a stretch) and instead focused on Covid. By the time we get there in the next spending round, staffing levels for an organisation as complex as the civil service will be based on what the situation was a decade in the past. It is so glaringly arbitrary that the only thing it does is demonstrate that it is not a serious policy from a serious government.

Governments have the right to determine the resources given to the civil service, but they also have an obligation to try match resources with commitments. This is not just about the Conservatives. I remember watching Gordon Brown at the Despatch Box, listing the staffing numbers for government departments, like Stalin announcing tractor production.

The civil service is huge and complex. What it does and how it does it are constantly changing as technology advances, people innovate, governments change their demands and global events knock everything off course.

Ministers need confidence that the resources needed to deliver their commitments are realistic and that public money is being spent in the most efficient way possible. New policies don’t always mean new people, but often they do. Instead of top-down arbitrary numbers, civil servants need to be trusted to deliver, given the right resources (and the flexibility with how to deploy them), then be held to account for the outcomes. Serious government is about getting that right and defending it.


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