Civil service numbers have risen to their highest level in five years as the government prepares for Brexit, while the civil service as a whole is becoming younger, an analysis by the Institute for Government has found.
The number of civil servants across government hit 404,160 in September 2018, up 19,900 from a post-war low of 384,260 at the time of the 2016 referendum on EU membership in June 2016. Numbers grew every quarter during that period.
This rapid expansion equated to the reversal of one in every five job cuts since the onset of austerity in 2010, according to the IfG's annual Whitehall Monitor report..
Departments that are most affected by Brexit are among those that have seen the biggest increases in their headcounts – including the Department for International Trade, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
The report’s publication today comes a week after the Cabinet Office confirmed there are now 11,000 civil servants working on Brexit-related policy and programmes.
But despite this rapid expansion, the report found the day-to-day work of government “has inevitably been hindered by the all-consuming political focus on Brexit”.
Nearly a third of the Treasury’s workforce are reportedly working on Brexit “at the expense of everything else”, the report said, adding that up to 4,000 civil servants from five departments could be about to move into Brexit-related roles. The Department for Education’s permanent secretary Jonathan Slater reportedly called for volunteers to aid the Brexit effort earlier this month.
“Brexit has clearly reduced government’s ability to think about and pursue other policies, and has had consequences for the civil service as well as politicians,” it said.
But despite these efforts, the report offers no reassurance that government will be ready for Brexit. It noted that the government has had far less time to prepare for Brexit than it has for other major projects such as the 2012 Olympic Games or automatic enrolment for pensions.
"If the UK leaves without a deal, deadlines for implementing new arrangements would be tighter still," it warned. "The government could only expect to have ‘a fraction’ of the necessary processes and systems in place – such as ensuring that the UK complies with international law – by exit day [29 March]."
As the government has expanded, its demographics have changed, the report found. Thirteen per cent of civil servants are now under the age of 30, up from 9% in 2014, although two-fifths of civil servants are over the age of 50.
There was also a continuation of a trend identified in last year’s Whitehall Monitor, that the number of senior civil servants has grown as a proportion of the whole as staff cuts are only continuing at the most junior level. There are also more civil servants based in London, and more female senior servants than ever before.
The report noted that the civil service has made progress on improving its professional skills – including commercial, analytical and project delivery skills. However, there is still a need to diversify career pathways to the top levels of government, it said, noting that the majority of perm secs have come via policy or economics-focused routes.
The unprecedented level of ministerial resignations has been “another serious political complication” for civil servants, the IfG said. As of 1 January, 21 ministers had resigned since the 2017 general election – eight of them cabinet ministers – with 12 of those resignations tied to Brexit.
And there has also been a high level of ministerial turnover because of a series of reshuffles. Reshuffles and resignations mean that less than half of all ministers – including half of the cabinet – have been in their current role since before 2018.
Some departments have seen an especially high turnover, the report noted. These include the Ministry of Justice, which has been led by six secretaries of state since 2010 during a challenging time for the prisons service - which the MoJ hinted at this month as it opened recruitment for two director-general roles to help deliver HMPPS’s “large and critical workload”.
DCMS has had seven culture secretaries since 2010 – a period when its remit has expanded significantly into areas such as the charities sector and the digital economy. The Department for Work and Pensions, which has been dealing with a series of controversies over its flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, is now on its fifth secretary of state since 2016.
And the Department for Exiting the European Union has also seen significant change since its establishment in July 2016. The role of Brexit secretary has changed with each incumbent, with the Cabinet Office and the prime minister taking on some responsibilities, the IfG said.
"Ministerial turnover can disrupt the passage of legislation, the delivery of policies and the conduct of government, as ministers get to grips with new briefs and civil servants adapt to new styles and priorities," it said.
Responding to the report, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The Brexit negotiations are a priority for the government and we will continue to recruit and deploy highly skilled staff to deliver on the result of the referendum.
“And we continue to tackle the other issues that matter to people including backing the long term plan for the NHS with an extra £20.5bn per year by 2023/24, creating a record high employment, and building more new homes."