Two civil service unions have written to Steve Barclay demanding an urgent meeting to discuss plans to cut civil service numbers by 20% over the next five years.
Last week’s revelation of proposals to cut 91,000 jobs over the next three years was “met with horror not only by members, but also by their employers, who were shocked by the announcement”, Mike Clancy and Dave Penman – general secretaries of the Prospect and FDA unions – said in a letter today.
And they blasted the “crass and insensitive” way the plans were made public, via a newspaper interview in which the prime minister said he wanted to “cut the cost of government to reduce the cost of living”.
“The damage of the announcement was compounded by how it was clearly leaked to the press and the media in advance, with the first time staff and civil service employers finding out the government’s intentions being when they saw the front page of the Daily Mail or turned on the radio on Friday morning,” they said.
There has so far been no official ministerial statement on the plans.
And while government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has used several media appearances to share his thinking – telling Sky News “it's about governing effectively and recognising that every penny we take in tax has to come off the backs of people working hard” – Barclay has said relatively little about the cuts since Friday’s announcement.
Announcing a separate move to advertise all senior civil service roles externally by default on Friday, the minister acknowledged the annoucement only in passing, saying: “We want to reduce the size of the civil service so it comes back down to the levels we had in 2016 but it remains important that, when we do recruit, particularly for leadership roles, we are able to bring in the best possible candidates for every position."
Several permanent secretaries wrote to staff on Friday acknowledging that the planned headcount reduction would be “unsettling” and apologising for the way the news was delivered.
In the letter to Barclay, seen by CSW, Clancy and Penman said the 91,000 figure, which ministers have said will bring the civil service headcount down to the level it was at 2016, appears to have been “plucked from the air with no cognisance of what the civil service is tasked to deliver”.
Departmental headcounts began climbing rapidly in the wake of the 2016 referendum on EU membership, as officials worked to prepare for Brexit, and continued climbing with the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020.
These two events have significantly added to officials’ workloads, the two union chiefs pointed out.
“The legislative landscape and the government’s priorities have changed fundamentally since 2016, with the repatriation of regulatory powers from Europe, the multiple other challenges of Brexit, a focus on dealing with climate change and biodiversity, the need to ensure energy and food security, supporting our armed forces, as well as supporting communities up and down the country as part of the government’s ‘levelling up’ and ‘build back better’ agenda,” they wrote.
Writing for CSW this week, Penman said it was "beyond irrational" to use the pre-Brexit headcount as a basis to make decisions on stafing levels in light of these changes.
And Clancy wrote that "it doesn’t take a genius to realise that a greater workload demands higher permanent staffing levels, often in technical specialisms like aviation regulation and trade policy."
In his CSW column, Clancy said Prospect would be consulting with members on how to respond to the announcement, and warned ministers that "nothing is off the table" . The PCS union has meanwhile said its members will use its upcoming conference to debate whether to hold a national strike ballot.
In their letter, the two union leaders wrote: “This approach to employment matters is both crass and insensitive and does nothing to recognise the fundamental contribution made by staff over the past number of years, where there has not been a government in peacetime as reliant on the civil service to defend, protect, support and enhance the lives of citizens and deliver the government’s agenda.
“Against the backdrop of the above, we need an urgent meeting and the attacks on civil servants must stop.”
The news comes after months of criticism by ministers of civil servants working from home, which is understood to have badly damaged morale.
A government spokesperson said: "We are incredibly grateful to the civil service for the outstanding job they do in delivering for the public.
"But when people across the country are facing huge living costs, the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and to run as efficiently as possible. That’s why the PM has tasked the cabinet to report back with a plan for returning the civil service to its 2016 levels over the next three years.
"As a responsible public sector employer it’s important that the government looks inwards to maximise efficiency and deliver a workforce which is leaner and better equipped to deliver on the issues that really matter to people."
This article was edited at 22:06 on 17.05.22 to add a government response