‘No target for civil service job cuts doesn’t mean no cuts’, minister tells MPs

Cabinet Office’s Alex Burghart is grilled over government’s plans to shrink departmental headcount
Alex Burghart appears before members of parliament's Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday

By Jim Dunton

29 Mar 2023

Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart has told MPs the government is unlikely to give a headline figure for the number of civil service jobs it would like to cut – but insisted the situation did not mean there was no need for “efficiencies”.

The junior minister’s observations came at a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee hearing yesterday that heard the civil service’s headcount in London is expected to drop by 25% over the next seven years.

Burghart was giving evidence to the same inquiry into the government’s future estate needs that his boss Oliver Dowden addressed in January. Then, Dowden told MPs that while former PM Boris Johnson’s plans for roughly 91,000 job cuts over the decade had been dropped in favour of a focus on efficiency “outcomes”, the spectre of job losses had not receded.

Dowden said departments’ tight spending settlements would “necessarily drive considerable efficiency savings”. He added that he expected the situation to “drive headcount savings as well”.

Yesterday, Burghart was asked directly for the government’s current target for job cuts, and the timeframe in which they were expected to be delivered.

“There is no target,” the minister replied. “Government absolutely always is looking for efficiencies. Those efficiencies come in a plethora of different ways.

“I don’t want to give you the impression that we’re not seeking to make savings. We very much are. It’s just that… previous ministers have set a numerical target and – you know – we’re not doing that.”

PACAC member Beth Winter suggested that the lack of a target implied there would not be any job cuts.

Burghart replied: “Those two things are different. We’re not saying that there won’t be any efficiencies. What we’re saying is that we’ve not set a target for the number of headcount reductions.

“I don’t believe that there will be a numerical target set. We will look at many and various ways of saving money and creating efficiencies. But we’re not saying that we have to reduce headcount by a certain figure.”

Cabinet Office director Ravi Chand is responsible for the government’s Places for Growth programme, which has a mission to relocate 22,000 civil service roles from the capital to the regions by the end of the decade.

He was asked what job-security assurances there were for officials who relocated from the capital.

“Each department has to make its own judgment call,” Chand said, adding that the Cabinet Office had set out clear expectations for the way that roles should be relocated.

However, Chand acknowledged that “a whole bunch of factors” could come into play in relation to new efficiencies  – making him unable to pre-empt future scenarios.

“As it stands, no department’s yet come to me and said the roles they have relocated are at risk of redundancy,” he said.

Last month, civil service unions said May 2022’s announcement that Boris Johnson’s then-government was planning to reduce civil service headcount 91,000 jobs – or 20% – had put the brakes on the Places for Growth drive.

Some civil servants have chosen to relocate to new centres, such as HM Treasury’s economic campus in Darlington, under Places for Growth. But in many cases relocations are about recruiting for vacancies away from the capital, rather than moving current staff.

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