The defence re-balancing act

Cuts to civilian staff at the MoD are falling more heavily on the senior ranks, making the department less top-heavy. Tim Fish reports on the progress of its downsizing efforts compared to those of other departments

By Civil Service World

11 Sep 2012

As the civil service cuts jobs in an attempt to whittle away at the mounting pile of national debt, departments are under pressure to ensure that the pain is fairly spread and that the cuts are sustainable.

This pressure is keenly felt in the Ministry of Defence (MoD), where major organisational reforms, the need to protect frontline troops and efforts to plug the £38 billion black hole in the accounts are making for tough decisions. What’s more, the ministry wants to tackle its reputation for being top-heavy, with too many senior positions. Last year The Guardian published parts of a confidential MoD paper entitled ‘Defence Reform – Liability Review’, which stated: “The perception, both within and beyond the department, that defence is bureaucratic and top heavy must be addressed. It undermines the confidence of our own staff, parliament, the public and media, and has a detrimental impact on the delivery of frontline and other defence outputs.”

“Put simply, the size of the defence workforce has fallen over recent decades, but reductions in the numbers of leaders has not kept pace,” the document continued. “The UK has a higher proportion of senior officers than the majority of our allies.”

Defence secretary Phil Hammond has made these criticisms publicly, saying last month: “At a time when we are making difficult decisions about defence spending and have had to accept reductions across the board, we cannot ignore the volume of posts at the top. For too long the MoD has been top-heavy, with too many senior civilians and military.”

However, CSW research suggests that – in terms of civilian staff, at least – the MoD is less top-heavy than the Home Office or HMRC (which we picked for comparison because of their large workforces). While the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has so far made bigger and faster cuts than any of the other three – both in absolute and percentage terms, and in its senior civil service (SCS) and total workforce numbers – the MoD has already made substantial cuts in its SCS staff.

Asked how many SCS it employs, MoD said it had 236 on 1 April. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) the figure for Q2 2011 was 280 – suggesting that the numbers have fallen by 16 per cent in a year. Again using ONS data for 2011 and MoD figures for 2012, it seems the MoD’s civilian workforce has fallen by 9.2 per cent during that period – so the senior ranks are being reduced at a much faster rate.

Last year’s fall followed a 2010-’11 drop in SCS numbers which the ONS puts at 6.6 per cent, while the civilian workforce fell by 5.5 per cent. Between 2010 and 2012, then, the percentage of SCS as a proportion of all MoD officials fell from 0.47 to 0.43 per cent.

This puts the MoD in good stead when compared to HMRC and the Home Office: both have cut SCS numbers, but their reductions are smaller. Indeed, HMRC has only cut its SCS at the same rate as its wider worforce, leaving the SCS unchanged as a percentage of its total staff since 2010. This compares to the very rapid cuts among top jobs at the DWP, which says it has achieved a huge 32.3 per cent cut in SCS numbers over the past year. The department says it currently has 230 SCS on its books, while ONS figures record that the DWP employed 340 SCS in Q2 2011.

These reductions mean that SCS now comprise just 0.26 per cent of DWP staff – less than half of the proportion at the MoD, and a fall of 0.6 points since 2010 (the MoD has produced a 0.4 point cut in its own comparative figure, and the Home Office a 0.2 point cut). So DWP staff are now emerging from a painful period of rapid job cuts: ONS figures reveal that its workforce fell by 9.3 per cent in 2010-’11, and the department’s own figures suggest that it lost 20 per cent of its remaining workforce over the last year. The DWP, which now employs 87,569 people, told CSW that further cuts of this kind are unlikely as the majority of downsizing has been completed.

By contrast, HMRC – which says it now has 335 SCS – wants to reduce those numbers to 280 by 2015: a further 16.4 per cent cut. The department says it will reduce its total staff by a similar proportion, 15.7 per cent, to 56,358. If these targets can be achieved then the proportion of the SCS compared to total staff will be lowered slightly to 0.49 per cent, but it will remain more top-heavy than the MoD’s civilian workforce.

At the Home Office, the plan is to reduce the overall size of the department and its agencies by 21 per cent between 2011 and 2015. However, according to the department’s annual report, the number of employees actually increased by almost 2,000 during 2009-’11. So the report shows that while the department has cut its staff numbers by 2,843 during 2011-12, it’s still almost as big as it was in 2009. To meet its 21 per cent target, the Home Office will have to shed a further 3,242 staff.

The annual report also reveals that during the year to 2012, the Home Office increased its SCS workforce by three to 212. It doesn’t contain figures for its SCS in 2010, but ONS statistics put the number at 240 in Q3 of that year, suggesting that the SCS was cut by 16.4 per cent between then and Q2 2011.

While the cuts vary between departments, it’s clear that the squeeze is on. Indeed, a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report published last week (see news, p3) found that the civil service head count fell by 35,000 during 2011 (all other figures in this report refer to full-time equivalent posts).

Total civil service numbers are expected to fall by 114,000 between 2010 and 2015, bringing the total to about 380,000. And the committee went on to warn that some of the most difficult cuts lie ahead: while almost 18,000 of the cuts to date have been achieved through early retirement and voluntary redundancies, it said, future cuts are “likely to be more challenging, as the more readily achievable cuts have already been made.”

This is certainly the prospect facing the MoD, which has done relatively well cutting its SCS but has yet to make a big dent in its wider civilian workforce. That pain is yet to come – but as MoD managers explain to their staff the job losses soon to hit the department, they will at least be able to show that senior managers have already been losing their jobs. The MoD’s reputation as a top-heavy department already looks unfair, at least on the civilian side; perhaps, as commentators call for the cuts to fall anywhere but on frontline troops, they should concentrate their fire on the uniformed top brass rather than their civilian counterparts.

See also DWP cuts SCS by one third in a year, but PAC warns that Whitehall reductions may not last


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