High workloads, low pay and ministers’ attacks driving civil servants out, unions say

Below-inflation pay blamed as civil servants “vote with their feet”
Around 44,000 officials left the civil service last year. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

03 Aug 2022

Civil servants are leaving at a decade-high rate due to heavy workloads, low pay and ministers’ attacks in the media, unions have said.

While the civil service headcount increased by 25,000 in 2021-22, more officials left government last year than in any other year since 2011-12, according to statistics released by the Cabinet Office last week.

The Cabinet Office said the high numbers of departures – more than 44,220, compared to 27,830 in 2020-21 – was due to the high growth in the civil service in the last six years, as well as the Covid pandemic delaying people’s decisions about work. The headcount rose from 384,000 in June 2016 to 479,000 in March 2022.

But unions have accused the government of failing to make the civil service an attractive place to work.

“High workloads and low pay are inevitably driving people to build their careers elsewhere,” Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said.

“The ability of knowledge workers to work remotely has widened labour market opportunities, with private sector employers regularly highlighting the ‘battle for talent’ and the need to provide an attractive employee proposition.

“In contrast, the UK government singles out its own workforce for unfounded criticism and they are treated as the poorest of poor relations in terms of pay compared to other public or private sector comparators.

“Many are now questioning whether the civil service is a place to build a career. Ministers should be deeply concerned about this, but shamefully some will treat it as a badge of honour.”

The PCS union said civil servants are tired of years of low pay and increasing criticism from ministers.

“The massive increase in people leaving the civil service is no surprise. After decades of falling living standards due to pay restraint, civil servants are voting with their feet,” a PCS spokesperson said.

“And if the cost-of-living crisis wasn’t reason enough to go, civil servants are fed up with constant government attacks on their pay, pensions, and terms and conditions, while all the time being asked to deliver more with less resources.”

Ministers have regularly criticised civil servants for working from home too often in recent months.

Meanwhile, officials’ pay rises are being eclipsed by soaring inflation. The average pay rise for most civil servants for this year is 2%, with little flexibility for departments to significantly increase that figure. And ministers recently rejected a recommendation from the Senior Salaries Review Board to give senior civil servants a 3% pay boost.

The government also  announced plans to cut civil service 91,000 jobs in the next three years. And this week, Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss threatened to cut billions of public spending by reducing pay for officials who work outside London – before performing a U-turn in less than 24 hours.

The figures showing how many civil servants left last year pre-date Boris Johnson’s announcement in May that the workforce would be slashed by 20%, the Cabinet Office said.

However, plans to reduce the size of the civil service were first outlined in the October 2021 Spending Review.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We are incredibly grateful to the civil service for the outstanding job they do in delivering for the public but when people across the country are facing huge living costs, the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and to run as efficiently as possible.

"These figures reflect the growth in the civil service since 2016, which in turn naturally means more people are likely to leave as a matter of course."

A number of roles linked to leaving the EU and coordinating the government's pandemic response have also been phased out, they said.

Staff turnover remains lower than it was in 2015, the Cabinet Office added.

Covid is also partly to blame for the unusually high number of departures, according to the Cabinet Office. The spokesperson said that people had put off decisions about work during the pandemic, as seen elsewhere in the labour market.

The 2020-21 departure figures were lower than the previous year, with 34,070 civil servants moving onto pastures new in 2019-20. However, this figure is still less than the average for the last two years.

“As with any organisation, there are a number of reasons why leaving figures fluctuate on an annual basis,” the Cabinet Office added.

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