Permanent secretaries across Whitehall have rushed to update departmental staff after the government’s plans to ramp up civil service job cuts to more than 90,000 over the next three years were unveiled in the right-wing media before officials were told.
In recent months, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay and government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg have both cited a figure of 65,000 job cuts as their target.
But details of a cabinet-level agreement to pursue a headcount reduction of 91,000 over the remainder of the current three-year spending-review period were agreed yesterday and reported first in the Daily Mail today.
HM Revenue and Customs permanent secretary Jim Harra; Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs perm sec Tamara Finkelstein; and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities perm sec Jeremy Pocklington were among those sending messages to staff today.
Harra thanked staff for their hard work and professionalism, and stressed that no decisions had yet been taken on how ministers’ target – effectively a 20% cut in staff numbers across government – would be met.
Finkelstein acknowledged the spectre of job cuts of an even greater number than was previously trailed would be “worrying”, but she stressed that the three-year window proposed by prime minister Boris Johnson would allow for staff numbers to be reduced in “the best way possible”.
“It will certainly require prioritising what we can do and deliver, as well as changes in the way we work,” she said.
“We await further detail on the parameters of this work, including which organisations are included, and will find the best way to work together so we can give ministers the options to meet the challenge.”
Their messages followed an update from cabinet secretary Simon Case, who acknowledged that delivering on the 91,000-strong target would be “exceptionally challenging”. He said there would be an “initial discussion” about the government’s approach to the cuts at an Efficiency and Value for Money Cabinet Committee on 23 May.
“The committee will set out the key parameters that departments and other civil service organisations will need to address in their own plans,” he said.
“Permanent secretaries will need to work closely with your secretaries of state to agree plans over the next month.”
He concluded: “I know this is an ambitious target and it will need imagination as well as skilful collaboration to implement successfully. Alex [Chisholm], Tom [Scholar] and I will speak to this further at our regular meeting next week, and we will welcome your views on how best to make this work.”
Case was likely referring to Whitehall’s weekly Wednesday Morning Colleagues gathering of permanent secretaries.