Civil service headcount reaches 500,000 mark

Civil service hits highest headcount since 2007 despite Hunt's plans to introduce a cap and cut 66,000 jobs
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By Tevye Markson

13 Mar 2024

The civil service full-time equivalent headcount has now passed the 500,000 mark despite ministers’ efforts to cap and reduce the size of the civil service.

The latest Office for National Statistics data on public sector employment, published yesterday, show there were 503,000 staff in the civil service as of December.

This is up by 7,000 compared to September’s figure of 496,000 and 20,000 higher than December 2022’s FTE headcount of 483,000.

It is also the biggest the civil service has been since March 2007, when it had 504,000 staff.

Looking at the ONS’s yearly figures, which use the mid-year figure, the size of the civil service has now risen for seven years in a row, rising from 384,000 in 2016 to 489,000 in 2023.

What about the annual civil service statistics published by the Cabinet Office?

Civil Service Statistics is an annual bulletin that used to be run by the ONS but was taken over by the Cabinet Office in 2018. Last published in August, they showed a FTE headcount of 487,665 as of March 2023. At that time, the ONS figures were 488,400 on an FTE basis. The Cabinet Office states that users should refer to the regular ONS quarterly statistics when monitoring changes in the size of the civil service.

 

The continued increase in the civil service headcount comes despite ministers’ regular announcements in recent years under successive governments of plans to cut it back.

In May 2022, Boris Johnson announced plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs, with the aim of bringing the headcount back to 2016 levels, thereby reversing the increases that followed the Brexit referendum and its response to the Covid pandemic. Ministers said the government would achieve this by “doing things more efficiently”.

After Johnson was ousted as prime minister – and following a short-lived Liz Truss administration – Rishi Sunak took over in October 2022 and quickly announced that he did not believe "top-down targets for civil service headcount reductions” were “the right way" to ensure “every taxpayer pound goes as far as it possibly can”. 

However, just a year later, his chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a civil service numbers cap and an intention to bring the headcount down to pre-Covid levels, amounting to a reduction of around 66,000. According to calculations by the Institute for Government's research assistant Sameer Aiyar-Majeed, the rise could mean the government now needs to find 80,000 cuts.

Hunt elaborated on the plan in the Autumn Statement, saying government departments would be asked to produce plans to reduce the size of the civil service to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the next spending review period, which will cover budgets beyond 2024-25.  There is no set length for how long spending review periods last but they often cover three years.

Cabinet Office secretary Oliver Dowden also recently commented on the government’s headcount-trimming plans, saying AI would be the only "sustainable path” to a slimmer civil service.

'No surprise': Unions responds to headcount rise

FDA general secretary Dave Penman told CSW the rise in the civil service headcount "illustrates what a fallacy the planned cap on numbers really is".

"Civil servants are recruited to carry out the work of government – if there are more civil servants, it's because the government keeps asking more of the civil service," he added. 

"Many services are on their knees, with record prison figures and record backlogs in both the health service and courts to name a few, so it should come as no surprise that the government is employing more civil servants to try to deal with this. The reasoning that somehow the 2019 figure is the ‘correct’ amount of civil servants, rather than considering the services that the public need to be fulfilled, makes absolutely no sense.”

PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote said the union, which represents the largest proportion of civil servants, has "long argued we need more civil servants, not less".

“If we want to deliver essential public services from the cradle to grave, we need a well-resourced civil service," she said. "The whole country benefits from more, better paid and better treated civil servants.”

A government spokesperson said:  "The chancellor has announced a cap on the size of the civil service, with departments required to look at how they can maximise efficiency and deliver for the public whilst retaining maximum value for the taxpayer.

“However, we make no apology for recruitment into key operational roles, such as prison officers and tackling illegal migration.

“We are committed to improving public services and we welcome every opportunity to boost productivity. The use of AI, for example, provides a number of unique possibilities for government - if developed appropriately and with human oversight – to remove time-wasting admin and bureaucracy.”

Where the have the biggest increases come?

Mirroring the change in staff numbers from June to September, the Home Office had the biggest uptick in staff numbers in the September-December period, with an increase of 2,665.

Next up is the Department for Work and Pensions, with an increase of 1,685, and then the Ministry of Justice with a growth of 510. The stats show the Cabinet Office headcount has, meanwhile, increased by 375 staff amid calls from former prime ministers for the department to be downsized.

Other departments which increased their headcount include the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (up 305), the Ministry of Defence (up 295, despite pausing all but essential recruitment), and the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (up 215).

Some departments did reduce the size of their workforce in this period. Again mirroring the change from June to September statistics, HM Revenue and Customs has lost the biggest number of staff in this period: 525. The other departments that have shrunk include the Treasury, which has 30 fewer officials than in September, and the UK Statistics Authority, which has 100 fewer staff.

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - HS2 needs multi-year settlements in future spending reviews – NAO

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