Unions brace for new wave of civil service job cuts

MPs are told Cabinet Office is poised to give briefing on “large numbers” of departmental role reductions
Geoff Lewtas talks to MPs today. Photo: ParliamentTV

By Jim Dunton

21 Feb 2023

Civil service unions expect to be told this week what the outcome of a call for “efficiency savings” from departments will mean for staffing numbers – with fears that “large numbers” of jobs will be placed at risk.

MPs examining the government’s future estate needs heard today that a Cabinet Office update is expected on Thursday after departments and agencies were required to submit proposals to save money as inflation chips away at the value of their Spending Review settlements.

Geoff Lewtas, senior national officer with the PCS union and coordinator of the National Trade Union Committee for Civil Servants, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that a clearer picture of the outcome of the exercise is due to emerge.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden’s evidence to PACAC last month indicated that last year’s proposals to slash civil service headcount by 91,000 are “off the agenda”, Lewtas said. But he said there is little reassurance for departmental staff about the magnitude of headcount reductions that may be required.

“There is still an intention to find large numbers of job roles being lost across the civil service generally, in most departments, I would guess,” he said. “But we can’t put any more flesh on that position until we know.

“What’s been happening over recent months is that towards the end of last year, all departments were asked to give their views on plans for achieving efficiency savings and those reports were received by the Cabinet Office at around about the end of January.”

The call for efficiency savings followed chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement in November and the radical downturn in the government’s financial position that followed Liz Truss’s spell as prime minister and then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s notorious mini-budget in September.

Last month Dowden told PACAC members that “considerable efficiency savings” would be required in most departments.

However, he appeared to distance himself from the 91,000 jobs target – equivalent to a 20% cut in staff numbers – that then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration announced to shock and dismay in May last year.

Dowden told MPs that while he expected the need for new efficiency savings to drive “headcount savings”, the cuts would be “driven by outcomes” rather than the need to hit a numerical target for job reductions.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, told today’s hearing that Dowden’s comments should not be a source of comfort for civil servants. He also offered a different interpretation of the Cabinet Office minister’s evidence.

“What he said was consistent with the advice that we have been giving to members,” he said. “Which is whilst the central targets may have gone, you would be naïve to think that significant job losses aren’t potentially on the horizon here.

“The minister made it fairly clear that he was not distancing himself from the 91,000 figure.

“He was in the cabinet that made that decision about those levels of job losses. He made it very clear that those levels of job losses were going to be consistent in terms of what were going to be the outcomes with regard to departmental budgets.

“So he might have been more urbane than the screaming headlines of the front page of the Daily Telegraph, but he did not assuage any concerns that I – or we – had about potential job losses of this magnitude for the civil service.”

The target of cutting 91,000 jobs from the civil service was part of a drive to return departmental headcounts to the level they had been at before the EU referendum vote in June 2016.

Between 2010 and and 2016, the government drove down civil service numbers from around 481,000 to a post-World War II low of 384,000. However, a combination of Brexit work and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic saw numbers rise to around 479,000 last summer.

Prospect’s Graham told MPs today that the announcement of the proposals to cuts 91,000 jobs was one of the most extraordinary things he had witnessed as a trade-union official. He said it quickly emerged that departments and agencies had not been warned of the announcement either.

“There wasn’t any engagement. There was no consultation. And, actually, there was no plan,” he said. “It was a figure plucked out of the air.”

A Cabinet Office source told Civil Service World the efficiency review is ongoing and that no announcements were planned for this week.

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