Civil servants could strike over plans to cut 91,000 jobs

Union pledges to "fight for every job in the civil service" as perm secs apologise for the way the news was announced
Striking PCS members at a rally in 2013. Photo: Yanice Idir/Alamy Stock Photo

Officials could strike over last week’s shock announcement that some 91,000 jobs could be cut over the next three years, the civil service’s biggest union has said.

Industrial action will be on the table at PCS’s national conference next week, its general secretary Mark Serwotka said in a statement pledging to “fight for every job in the civil service”.

“Our members, the heroes praised by the government for risking their lives keeping the country running during the pandemic, are now being told their jobs are at risk,” he said. 

“Making cuts will only make things worse, make waiting lists longer for those seeking passports and driving licences, make telephone queues longer for those with tax enquiries.”

The union will set out its opposition to the proposed cuts, which are intended to bring the civil service headcount down to pre-Brexit levels, tomorrow ahead of the conference where members will debate whether to run a national strike ballot.

Prospect, which represents public sector professionals, have meanwhile warned that "ministers should be on notice" that "nothing is off the table" as the union considers how to respond to the announcement.

Writing for CSW today, general secretary Mike Clancy wrote: "Prospect will be consulting with our members about the campaign ahead to save their jobs and protect the services the public rely on."

Perm secs 'sorry' about cuts being announced via the press

Serwotka said the fact that the announcement was made via an interview with the Daily Mail, rather than as an official announcement, “tells you all you need to know about what the government thinks of civil servants”.

His message came as permanent secretaries, who had apparently heard about the cuts for the first time via the press, scrambled to do damage control. 

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy perm sec Sarah Munby wrote to staff on Friday to apologise that they had to hear the “challenging and difficult message” that one in five civil service jobs will be cut over the next five years via the media.

She added: “I couldn’t be prouder of the brilliant colleagues we have across BEIS, and I hope you know that the senior team here will be working very carefully to make sure we give ministers the very best advice as we make our way through this – especially given the large amount of work we currently have on our collective plate!"

In a memo seen by CSW, Munby wrote: "I am sure many of you will have seen the news overnight that the prime minister has announced a plan to reduce the number of civil servants over the next three years back to 2016 levels.

“The first thing to say is that I am sorry we weren’t able to share this news through a more standard process before it landed in the media. I know it is a very challenging and difficult message, not just for teams here but right across the civil service including many front-line teams serving the public.”

“The second thing to say is that everyone will rightly have questions about what this means and how it will look – and the honest answer at the moment is that we don’t know,” she added.

The prime minister provided little detail of what he wanted the cuts to look like, but a leaked letter from Simon Case revealed the civil service head had been asked to work with ministers to come up with a plan to bring the headcount down to pre-Brexit levels.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs perm sec Tamara Finkelstein acknowledged on Friday that people may find the news “worrying” and that “it will certainly require prioritising what we can do and deliver, as well as changes in the way we work”.

Similarly, in a joint all-staff memo the same day, Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft and second perm sec Tricia Hayes said they understood the news would be “unsettling” for civil servants “who are working with great professionalism and commitment on the most important and challenging issues of our time”.

CSW understands that the perm secs also apologised in a separate message for the way the news was shared, and said they had not known about the plans beforehand.

HM Revenue and Customs perm sec Jim Harra also apologised to officials, writing: “I am sorry that you have learned this from the media rather than from me or civil service leaders.”

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