Chancellor Rishi Sunak is drawing up plans to impose sweeping cuts on the UK civil service, with tens of thousands of jobs expected to be lost across Whitehall over the next three years.
Sunak is working with the Cabinet Office to oversee the cuts as part of efforts to secure savings worth 5 per cent of Whitehall departments’ day-to-day spending budgets by 2024-25.
Trade unions are warning that the cuts could undermine the government’s plans to shift thousands of civil service jobs out of Whitehall and into the UK’s nations and regions, as part of Boris Johnson’s efforts to “level up” left-behind areas.
Sunak indicated in October at his spending review, which set Whitehall departmental budgets for the next three years, that he wanted the size of the civil service to return to pre-pandemic levels by the middle of the decade.
The number of UK civil servants reached 505,000 in September, compared with 456,000 in March 2020, just prior to the coronavirus crisis, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics this month.
Sunak’s goal would therefore imply 49,000 posts being cut over the next three years, but the reductions are due to be less severe because they are supposed to be confined to “non-frontline civil service headcount”, meaning that about half of officials are not affected.
An estimated 48 per cent of civil servants work in front-line “operational delivery” roles such as paying welfare benefits and state pensions, issuing driving licences and operating prisons.
However, there are still likely to be cuts overseen by Sunak of about 25,000 civil service roles, according to Rhys Clyne, researcher at the Institute for Government, a think-tank.
He said the government was yet to explain precisely which types of jobs are facing the axe in the retrenchment, but suggested policymaking roles could be most vulnerable because these positions had expanded significantly during the pandemic and also following the EU referendum in 2016.
“The big growth since 2016 has been in policy professionals,” added Clyne. “This is understandable: there was a massive policy task which came with the need to prepare for Brexit and the post-Brexit situation, then the pandemic threw up a range of massive policy problems that needed to be addressed.”
Ministers will seek to avoid compulsory redundancies in favour of not filling civil service roles as officials either quit to go to jobs elsewhere or retire, according to people briefed on the plans.
The Treasury is expected to set out the parameters of the programme early next year, added these people.
A Treasury spokesperson said the government had increased overall Whitehall departmental spending in the spending review.
“We expect departments to return the non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels without large-scale redundancies,” added the spokesperson. “This will help fund more frontline roles and deliver better services for the British people.”
The FDA union, which represents professionals and managers in the civil service, said the planned job cuts could undermine the government’s programme under which 22,000 roles are due to be moved out of London and into the regions by 2030.
“At a time when the government has to face up to the longer-term consequences of Covid -19, the still uncertain outcomes from Brexit and a strong commitment to levelling up, cutting tens of thousands of jobs across the civil service will inevitably mean that something has to give,” said Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA.
“As the old saying goes, to govern is to choose and any serious government has to match commitments to resources.”