Civil service headcount continues to grow amid job cuts threat

Which departments are getting bigger and which are relying more on temporary staff?
Whitehall data. Photo: Fotolia

By Tevye Markson

29 Mar 2023

The civil service has grown again despite repeated declarations that it will be reduced.

As of December 2022, there were 483,450 full-time equivalent (FTE) civil servants – 2,700 more than in the previous quarter. 

Last May, then-prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans to cut 91,000 jobs, but the policy was scrapped by Rishi Sunak when he was elected as PM in October.

Sunak, who set a different headcount reduction target as chancellor a year before Johnson's, has instead asked every department to "look for the most effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets”. The government launched an efficiency and savings review in November to do this.

However, significant job cuts are still expected. Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden told MPs in January that the only difference to Johnson's plan is “we will be driven by outcomes”. And on Monday, fellow Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart said the government would not set a target for the number of headcount reductions but "look at many and various ways of saving money and creating efficiencies" including job cuts. 

Despite the warnings of cuts, the addition of 2,700 civil servants in the latest quarter is a 0.6% increase, a higher rise than in the previous two quarters, where there was growth of 0.5% (September 2022) and -0.1% (June 2022).

This means government has 8,550 more civil servants (1.8%) than a year ago.

Getting bigger, getting smaller: Departmental breakdown

The Ministry of Justice remained the biggest department in the latest Office for National Statistics release, with 82,170 FTE officials, and increased by 780 from September to December. Most of the increase was in the HM Prison and Probation Service, which increased its ranks by 560.

The Department of Work and Pensions is still the second biggest department, with 79,240 officials, but it reduced its headcount by the largest number, a drop of 910. 

Around a third of these were temporary staff, with the department more than halving its number of temporary workers from 660 to 320. 

The DWP has been making hundreds of staff redundant due to the closure of dozens of the department’s offices. Nearly 700 civil servants at the DWP have accepted voluntary redundancy amid a wave of office closures, the department has revealed in January.

The second biggest fall in staff was at the Cabinet Office, which reduced its headcount by 230.

The Home Office increased its headcount the most, gaining 2,310 officials in just three months, 510 of which were temporary staff. The department is currently home to the largest number of temporary workers in government – 1,780. A Home Office spokesperson said the department is recruiting more staff “to deliver on the public’s priorities, most notably around border security and addressing pressures within the asylum system”. 

The FCDO also increased its overall headcount, despite its permanent staff numbers dropping by 170, as the amount of temporary staff rose by 390.

Of the major departments, the Department of Health and Social Care continues to have the largest proportion of temporary staff – 9.3% –  although it cut its number of casual employees by 190. The DHSC stats include the UK Health Security Agency, which has been criticised for its reliance on management consultants and contingent labour.

The FCDO has the next highest proportion – 5.5% – followed by the Home Office in third (4.6%).

A DHSC spokesperson said the department and its agencies “took on a number of temporary staff as it expanded to deal with” the Covid pandemic.

“The number is now falling rapidly as the pressures of the pandemic fall,” they said.

“We will continue to monitor the size and composition of the workforce according to the remit of the department and the needs of the nation.”

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