Sunak accused of scapegoating civil servants over defence spending pledge

Many areas of the civil service are "already at breaking point", unions say as Treasury says job cuts will contibute to 2.5% spending commitment
Rishi Sunak announced the defence spending pledge in Warsaw. Photo: Michal Busko/Alamy Stock Photo

Civil service unions have accused Rishi Sunak of “scapegoating” his own workforce after the prime minister after briefings that civil service job cuts will be used to fund a commitment to increase defence spending.

After Sunak announced plans to increase spending on defence from 2.3% to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade, the Treasury confirmed that it would be partially funded by money saved through plans to cut the civil service headcount by more than 70,000.

Following the announcement, critics pointed out that the entire paybill of the civil service is around £14bn a year, making it unlikely that even deep cuts could make a dent in the extra £75bn the government plans to spend on defence over the next six years.

Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas dismissed the suggestion as "not serious".

"If the government is relying on civil service efficiencies and cuts to fund this amount of new defence spending then that completely lacks credibility," he said.

Fran Heathcote, general secretary of the PCS union, said the decision to use civil service cuts to redirect money to the defence budget – which were briefed out to national newspapers yesterday – showed that “yet again, ministers shamefully see fit to scapegoat their own workforce”.

“It’s not right for our members to pay for a rise in defence spending with their jobs, so we’ll fight these proposals tooth and nail, just as we fought them under Boris Johnson,” she said.

The overall civil service headcount has consistently risen in recent years despite repeated promises by ministers to shrink it down. 

In May 2022, then-prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans to cut 91,000 jobs to return to pre-Brexit headcount, but the policy was scrapped by Rishi Sunak when he was elected as PM in October that year. 

Sunak, who set a different headcount reduction target as chancellor a year before Johnson's, said did not believe "top-down targets for civil service headcount reductions” was the right strategy when he became prime minister in October 2022. He instead asked every department to "look for the most effective ways to secure value and maximise efficiency within budgets”. 

In October, his chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a civil service numbers cap and said the government would bring the headcount back down to pre-pandemic levels. In last year’s Autumn Statement, he confirmed departments would be asked to produce plans to cut jobs to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the next spending review period, with the aim of reversing a 66,000-strong headcount hike. 

The civil service has continued to grow in the months since Hunt’s announcement, putting the number of jobs to be axed at around 72,000.

But Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said that despite this growth, many areas of the civil service “are already at breaking point and further cuts will make it impossible for them to fulfil their duties”.

“The main drivers of increased headcount in recent years have been the additional workload from taking on functions previously performed at European level, and the acute pressure on frontline service delivery in areas like the Prison Service. Meanwhile, many agencies that are less well known but critical to the UK’s security, safety and prosperity are severely short-staffed and struggling to recruit or retain the specialist skills they need,” he said.

“Even ignoring other essential services, non-military personnel in the MoD are vital for the Armed Forces to function,” he said.

“It’s no use having war-ready armed forces if the rest of the public sector is falling down around our ears.”

Speaking to ITV News this morning, defence secretary Grant Shapps said ministers wanted “people on the front line… rather than vast swathes of people in the more background jobs, the more administrative jobs, including the fact that there turns out to be 72,000 more civil servants now than they were before Covid”.

“So we've had a massive expansion, and we simply want to get it back down to where it was to run things more efficiently, effectively,” he said.

Challenged on whether the government was being “casual” about having 72,000 more civil servants than necessary – or whether they are in fact doing a “very important job”, including implementing Brexit – Shapps once again attributed the expansion to the pandemic response.

“And we're simply saying, we think that actually a new, modern civil service would function by using more technology, more AI,” he added.

He said he was “confident” that the cuts would not leave thousands of former civil servants unemployed because jobs would be available in other areas of the economy, “given that there are so many people chasing each job at the moment”.

“It's just that we don't think that it makes sense to have a civil service which continues to grow and grow and grow, even though the challenges of things like Covid have now partially passed into the background,” he added.

Read the most recent articles written by Beckie Smith and Tevye Markson - Civil service job cuts will help to fund defence spending boost, Treasury says

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