Civil service headcount rises at highest rate since 2021, despite planned job cuts

MoD headcount increases by 790 despite recruitment pause
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By Tevye Markson

14 Dec 2023

The civil service headcount has risen by 7,000 in three months amid plans from the government to bring numbers back to pre-pandemic levels.

The number of full-time equivalent civil servants went up from 489,000 to 496,000 between June and September, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.

This is a rise of 1.4%, which is the biggest quarterly percentage increase since June-September 2021, when the headcount rose by 1.7%.

Most of the uptick has taken place in the Home Office (+2,310), Ministry of Justice (+1,510) and Ministry of Defence (+790), with these departments accounting for two-thirds of the overall growth.

The growth in the Home Office and MoJ can be partly explained by the departments' respective drives to recruit more asylum caseworkers and prison officers.

The Home Office has set a target of doubling its asylum caseworkers cohort and in August said it was looking to recruit an extra 700 caseworkers by the end of that month. The MoJ is aiming to hire 5,000 prison officers by the mid-2020s. 

The increase at the Ministry of Defence comes despite the department having introduced an 18-month recruitment pause in July, with the aim of reducing its headcount by 2-3,000. 

The biggest reductions in staff took place in HM Revenue and Customs (-500); the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (-210), which lost its digital portfolio earlier this year during machinery of government changes; and the Department of Health and Social Care (-180).

The overall headcount has consistently risen in recent years despite repeated proclamations by ministers that the government wants to reduce the size.

In May 2022, then-prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans to cut 91,000 jobs to return to pre-Brexit headcount, but the policy was scrapped by Rishi Sunak when he was elected as PM in October that year.

Sunak, who set a different headcount reduction target as chancellor a year before Johnson's, instead asked every department to "look for the most effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets”.

But in October, his chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a civil service numbers cap and said the government would bring the headcount back down to pre-pandemic levels. In the Autumn Statement last month, he confirmed departments would be asked to produce plans to cut jobs to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the next spending review period, with the aim of reversing a 66,000 headcount hike.

Sizing up the new departments

The stats show for the first time the headcounts of the new departments created by Rishi Sunak's machinery of government changes in February.

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was broken up and replaced with three departments: the Department for Business and Trade (which also took in the former Department for International Trade); the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero; and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (which also took over digital policy from the culture department). 

DBT is the biggest of these new departments, with 9,000 employees,  followed by DSIT with 5,220 staff. DESNZ has 4,140.

This puts DBT in the lower-middle of the pack of government departments size-wise, with DSIT and DESNZ at the lower end.

Note: This story has been updated to use the seasonablly adjusted figures that the ONS recommends are used when comparing changes to workforce sizes. This has increased the headcount figures used in the story as the seasonablly adjusted figures are higher and has also changed the comparable quarter when the increase was last so high, from September-December 2021 to June-September 2021. All of the changes made to the story are in the first three paragraphs

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