New research reveals scale of civil service’s use of contract workers

Prospect union identifies parts of government where temps and contractors account for more than a fifth of all staff spend – and warns of a structural reliance on non-salaried staff

The Cabinet Office, Whitehall, London, as new research finds departments heavily reliant on non-salaried staff. Picture credit: PA Images

By Jim Dunton

15 Jun 2016

Some government departments are routinely spending more than a third of their staffing costs on contractors and temporary staff, according to new research by the Prospect union.

Prospect’s analysis of routinely-published departmental workforce management figures shows that there are five departments or agencies in which full-time equivalent, non-salaried workers account for at least 20% of total staffing costs.

According to the figures, the UK Atomic Energy Authority UKAEA) saw the highest proportion of such costs – 35%, relating to 413 full-time-equivalent staff in 2015/16.

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The figure for the Cabinet Office was 21.6%, while the Ministry of Justice was 20.7% and the Department for Transport 20.4%.

In terms of the amount spent on non-salaried staff, the Ministry of Defence’s £84m was the highest tab, however proportionally that figure accounted for just 5.5% of the grand total for its staffing costs.

The National Offender Management Service, which is part of the Ministry of Justice, had the highest count of non-salaried staff: 1,457. The figure made up 3.6% of its total staffing costs.

The Prospect figures indicate that the Cabinet Office had 183 non-salaried full-time equivalent staff over the period from March 2015 to February this year. They represented 8% of the workforce but accounted for 21.6% of the department’s £165.3m staffing costs for the period.

“Departments should be looking to shift to having more salaried staff. If they did that, there might be scope for giving people a bit of a pay rise" – Jonathan Green, Prospect union

The union – which represents civil service specialists including engineers and scientists – argues that an over-reliance on agency staff at some departments is forcing down the funding available to keep the pay of permanent staff competitive, hampering departments’ ability to maintain the right calibre of full-time talent.

Jonathan Green, research section head at Prospect, said the use of non-salaried staff seemed to fall into two broad categories: situations where a degree of flexibility was required to react to unpredictable circumstances, and instances where a there was a structural reliance on non-salaried staff.

He said that the while the former situation could be seen as a justifiable use of resources, the latter situation appeared to be evidence of poor workforce planning that was damaging to the wider civil service.

“A recent Public Accounts Committee report said that some of the costs for non-salaried staff are twice that for salaried staff,” he said.

“Clearly departments should be looking to reduce the size of their non-salaried operations and shift to having more salaried staff. If they did that, there might be scope for giving people a bit of a pay rise.”

Green said some departments’ non-salaried staffing costs appeared to fluctuate more than others’.

“That’s the case for the Environment Agency, and we know that the Department for Transport is bringing in private sector skills to fill gaps with franchise costing,” he said.

“What’s interesting is that in organisations like the Hydrographic Office, their figure is about 12% and it doesn’t change from month-to-month. That kind of situation looks like a workforce planning issue.”


Civil Service World gave the Cabinet Office, NOMS, the UKAEA and the MOD the opportunity to detail their use of non-salaried staff to put Prospect’s research into context.

The UKAEA said the majority of its off-payroll contractors were working in specialist scientific and engineering roles at the Joint European Torus fusion research facility in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

“Non-salaried posts allow flexibility for highly-skilled and technical staff to work on short-term projects according to demand,” a spokeswoman said. 

“This means that staff are able to work at the JET fusion research facility on major enhancement and maintenance programmes. UKAEA regularly reviews this situation, hiring permanent positions where necessary.”

“Non-salaried posts allow flexibility for highly-skilled and technical staff to work on short-term projects according to demand" – UK Atomic Energy Authority spokesperson

She added that the Prospect figure for UKAEA was an average for the year and that the actual number of off-payroll contractors had fallen from 460 to 370 during the period.

In relation to NOMS’s headcount of non-salaried staff, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the service had “always used temporary staff” to ensure the prisons and probation service was safely and efficiently run.

She added: “We are always looking for ways to save taxpayers money and are committed to a 50% reduction in the department’s overall administration and back office budget by 2020, saving £278m.”

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence said: “Spend on non-MoD staff is only used for work where the MoD does not already have the specialist skills needed to support crucial defence programmes.

“We use non-salaried employees for short-term roles as they offer better value for the taxpayer than maintaining all the specialist skills we need permanently in-house.”

The Cabinet Office had not responded to CSW's request for comment at the time of publication.

A recent report by the National Audit Office found that while departments had “substantially” reduced their spending on consultants and temporary staff over the last five years, spending on such workers had begun to creep back up in the last three years, suggesting only a “short-term reduction rather than a sustainable strategy”.

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