Civil service headcount hits 10-year high

Growth may be slowing down amid government plans to cut 65,000 jobs
The government is looking to revive Lord Francis Maude's plan to shrink the civil service

By Tevye Markson

16 Mar 2022

The civil service headcount has reached its highest level in more than a decade, continuing its growth since the EU referendum in June 2016.

There are now 475,000 civil servants – based on full-time equivalent numbers – as of the end of December, the latest Office for National Statistics figures show.

This is a rise of 2,000 compared to the end of September and an increase of 34,000 from the end of 2020.

However, the rise is a smaller one than the increase of 8,000 from June to September, and – according to the Institute for Government – the curve is flattening.

Latest civil service staff numbers out today - still going up, but much more slowly ⬇️

— Alex Thomas (@AlexGAThomas) March 15, 2022

Minister for government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg recently outlined his plans to shrink the civil service by removing more than 65,000 jobs – around one in seven civil servants at the latest count.

And Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay claimed last month that the government’s plans to pare back the civil service headcount by tens of thousands of jobs will be “empowering” for junior staff.

Under then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the civil service shrank from around 480,000 full-time officials in 2010 to about 384,000 just before the 2016 EU referendum.

Lord Maude’s 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan aimed to reduce the civil service headcount to 380,000 and came close.

But this reduction has since been completely reversed, with numbers rising every year since 2016, largely in response to the pressures of Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

Ministers outlined plans in the 2021 Spending Review to reduce the non-frontline roles civil service headcount to pre-pandemic levels by 2023-24 “to drive out inefficient spend to ensure taxpayers’ money is focused on priorities” and fund more frontline roles.

The Treasury told CSW at the time that it could not provide a definition of what was meant by "non-frontline civil servant".

After being appointed to his new role in last month’s reshuffle, Rees-Mogg said he is determined to get the headcount “under control”, telling The Times: “Every person working for the civil service has to be paid for by the taxpayer.

“So you’ve got to think, is this providing value? Is it doing something that needs to be done? Is it doing it in the most efficient way?”

“What we should be saying to ourselves every day is are we making the lives of the British people better? And do we make them better by employing large numbers of civil servants?

“The answer is probably no because the British public helps pay for them. And so you’ve got to get it under control. And yes, there have been exceptional reasons why you’ve needed more in the last couple of years. But those reasons are coming to an end.”

“This is also about empowering civil servants and taking away often the many layers so that the very good work of sometimes more junior civil servants can get to ministers and senior decision makers,” he said.

Civil service unions slammed Rees-Mogg's comments, with Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy saying officials deserve a pay rise, "not cheap shots in the press that they are unable to respond to".

FDA assistant general secretary Steven Littlewood called for Rees-Mogg to explain which services he would choose to cut, labelling his comments "tired rhetoric", while PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said "the only thing out of one multi-millionaire's personal crusade against the public sector".

A government spokesperson said in line with the 2021 Spending Review, it is expected that departments will "return the non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels without large scale redundancies".

The civil service headcount in 2019-20 was between 416,000 and 423,000, around 52-59,000 less than it is now. Asked how the figures relate to Rees-Mogg's aim to cut 65,000 jobs, the spokesperson declined to comment.

"The civil service is focused on delivering the Prime Minister's priorities and staff levels and resources are constantly reviewed to effectively deliver the government’s agenda," they said.

"This will help fund more frontline roles and deliver better services for the British people," they added.

Most of the rise in recent years has come in London, despite a pledge to move 22,000 jobs out of the capital.

The Department of Health and Social Care saw the biggest increase in staff last year, nearly doubling in size from September 2020 to September 2021 amid the Covid pandemic.

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