Civil service union urges honesty on public sector cuts amid austerity fears

<span>Photograph: Yui Mok/PA</span>
Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Ministers “need to be honest with the public” that services will stop or be scaled back, the head of the union representing senior civil servants has said, amid fears a new era of austerity is about to be unleashed.

Concern was expressed by trade unions representing public sector workers in response to reports that departments are being asked to draw up plans for cuts aimed at reducing government borrowing as a result of the crisis sparked by Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget.

Civil service departments were already delivering an average of 5% efficiency savings agreed as part of a review last year yet it now appeared the government was asking for those plans to be ripped up “in a state of panic”, said Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants.

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“If the government refuses to compensate public services for soaring inflation, or even cut their budgets back further, they need to be honest with the public,” he said. “Services are going to stop or be scaled back and the government needs to be accountable for those decisions.”

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the largest representing civil servants in the UK, said that cuts “would make waiting lists longer for those seeking passports and driving licences, make telephone queues longer for those with tax enquiries”.

The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, added: “When a government minister says ‘efficiency savings’, everyone knows they mean ‘job cuts and privatisation’, and we’re very clear there’s no scope for either in the civil service.”

Calling for a general election, Unison’s general secretary, Christina McAnea, said: “Ministers must listen to the world’s economic experts urging them to junk this disastrous financial experiment. Suggestions that benefits won’t rise with soaring inflation and beleaguered public services are to be squeezed is a terrifying prospect.

“The government ​seems to have no idea of the damage its foolhardy approach is wreaking. Essential services need support and investment so they can hold on to experienced staff and deliver for the public, not cuts that will harm communities irreparably.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the ASCL was extremely concerned about the “bleak prospects” for the UK economy after the mini-budget. “There are many implications but one of the most worrying is that this will lead to a new era of austerity for public services, including education,” he said.

“This comes after a decade in which school and college funding has significantly fallen in real-terms, forcing cutbacks in educational provision, because of the last age of austerity.”

Another union representing civil servants, Prospect, called on Liz Truss to change course and stop what it described as an “irresponsible plan which is tanking the economy”.

Mike Clancy, Prospect’s general secretary, said: “While ministers spent the entire summer fiddling as they picked a new PM, dedicated civil servants and other public sector workers kept the country running.”

Truss promised during the Tory leadership election that she was “not planning public spending reductions”. But Sky News reported on Wednesday that the Treasury was expected to send out a letter to secretaries of state insisting that departments find savings.

The union reaction came as the prime minister told BBC Radio Leeds that the government’s tax-cutting measures were the “right plan” in the face of rising energy bills and to get the economy growing and deal with inflation, despite market turmoil sparked by the chancellor’s mini-budget.