Departments ‘told to plan for staff cuts’ in Spending Review

Treasury eyes reversal of 70,000 increase in civil service headcount since 2016, according to report
Stephen Barclay Credit: GOV.UK

By Jim Dunton

12 Aug 2021

HM Treasury has reportedly told departmental perm secs to plan for thousands of civil service jobs to be cut over the coming years as part of this autumn’s Spending Review.

The move is aimed at reversing an upturn in headcount since 2016, when the pressures of preparing for Brexit and more recently responding to the coronavirus pandemic took precedence over the drive to reduce staff numbers that started under the coalition government.

Quoting a “senior government source” the Times said cabinet ministers and perm secs had been told by the Treasury that the civil service’s current headcount was “unsustainable and needs to be significantly reduced” to keep a lid on public sector spending.

The paper said civil service unions had been briefed that the staffing cuts were expected to be achieved largely by not replacing officials who left, rather than by a programme of redundancies.

However it noted that some staff based in London and the south east were likely to take redundancy rather than relocate to other parts of the country under the Places for Growth programme, which aims to move 22,000 jobs out of the capital by the end of the decade.

According to the Institute for Government, the civil service had 468,130 full-time equivalent staff at the end of March this year,  although around 14,500 of them were temporary staff working on the 2021 Census. The IfG’s most recent Whitehall Monitor report says that when the EU referendum took place in June 2016, civil service staffing levels were at a postwar low of 384,260 – meaning any return to that level from March’s figures would require reduction of at least 70,000 full-time-equivalent jobs.

The IfG said that 17 successive quarterly increases in civil service headcount meant that that just over two-thirds of the job cuts instigated under the coalition government since 2010 had been reversed by March this year. Its data suggested that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Transport, HM Treasury and the Department for Education all had significantly more staff in March 2021 than they did in 2010.

The Times report said chief secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay, who is leading the Spending Review on behalf of chancellor Rishi Sunak, was understood to be “concerned” by official figures showing the reversal of almost all the Whitehall cost savings made under the coalition government.

It quoted a “Whitehall source” saying: “What we’ve seen has been a splurge on staff first for Brexit and then on Covid in response to the immediate pressures facing the government. This is a recognition that this has to be reversed.”

The Treasury has yet to set a date for Sunak’s Spending Review. It had not responded to Civil Service World’s request for comment on the Times report at the time of publication.

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