Whitehall is not working to a "planned target" for reducing civil service headcount at the spending review, the cabinet secretary has said.
Chancellor George Osborne used this week's Budget to confirm that departments would face further spending cuts of around £20bn in order to meet the government's revised target of running a budget surplus by 2019-20, and said details of the cuts would be set out in a separate spending review in the autumn.
In a blog posted on the GOV.UK website, Sir Jeremy Heywood acknowledged that the period leading up to the spending review would be difficult for officials, but stressed that departments would be granted flexibility on how those cuts would be delivered.
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"Through this rigorous process, departments will be able to take considered decisions on the size and shape of their workforces, on the pay awards that will support this, and on managing redundancies that might arise," he wrote.
"That inevitably means a period of unwelcome uncertainty – but it is vital that the government takes the time to get the choices and trade-offs right. I want to be clear now, though, that while departments will have hard choices to make in deciding where savings will come from, there is no planned target for reductions in civil service numbers."
According to the latest analysis by the Institute for Government, the total civil service workforce fell by almost 72,000 during the last parliament – and unions have said that the government's spending plans mean they are braced for a similar level of job cuts in this parliament.
The National Audit Office spending watchdog also used a recent report to voice its concern over the level of support provided by the centre of government in managing staffing reductions so far.
"Departments have significantly cut their staff numbers and costs in the last five years but not enough planning has gone into making sure that, over the longer term, the reductions already made and any required in the future are sustainable and do not damage the delivery of public services,” the NAO said.