Plan to axe 91,000 civil servants ‘only possible with cuts to services’

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA</span>
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

Doubts have been cast on claims by Boris Johnson that it will be possible to go ahead with plans to axe 91,000 civil servants “without harming” frontline services.

The prime minister wrote in May to civil servants justifying plans for a reduction in headcount of almost 20%, saying the government must reduce its costs “just as many families are doing”.

But a review by Steve Barclay, Johnson’s former chief of staff, is reported to have caused the Treasury to have second thoughts about the plans, given the potential impact on wider services.

Johnson had tasked the cabinet with cutting staff by a fifth, telling ministers during an away day in Stoke-on-Trent earlier this year that every bit of cash saved on government spending could be better used elsewhere.

Trade unions representing civil servants seized on reports about Treasury reticence, while Labour said it was clear that the “disastrous plan” would cause historic staff shortages, causing huge delays for people when trying to access appointments, and renew passports and driving licences.

“Now the government has not only belatedly come to the same conclusion, but also found this shoddy proposal would have cost the taxpayer over £1bn in redundancy payments,” said Rachel Hopkins MP, Labour’s shadow minister in the Cabinet Office.

The plans have been backed by Liz Truss, the Conservative leadership frontrunner, who has been accused of making “ludicrous” claims as she vowed to cut civil service salaries and reduce expenditure to recoup £11bn a year in a “war on Whitehall waste”.

However, a Whitehall insider who was said to have worked on the plans to axe tens of thousands of civil servants was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that the prime minister had announced the move without fully thinking through the implications.

“You can only deliver 91,000 cuts by actual cuts to major frontline services,” they added. “There’s no way you can get to that number through efficiency savings or reductions in HQ staff.”

Another Whitehall source was quoted as suggesting that a figure of £2bn had been mooted as the cost of compulsory redundancy payments.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, a union that represents senior civil servants, tweeted on Monday: “It’s almost as if cutting a fifth of staff, based on an artificial number devised solely for political headlines that takes no account of current demands on public services is a bad idea.

“Ministers can determine the size of the civil service, but they can’t hide from the consequences,” he added.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: “We have long warned that cuts have consequences, and that the original job cuts announcement was motivated by politics, not practicalities.

“If, as reported, the Treasury is ‘going cold’ on the cuts, then we welcome the arrival of reality within government – you cannot demand more work of civil servants while employing fewer of them.

“We shall be watching developments with interest and warn whoever is prime minister we shall fight for every job, against every cut. Our hardworking members should be given an above-inflation pay rise to help them through the cost of living crisis, not a redundancy notice.”

A government spokesperson said: “As people across the country are facing huge living costs, the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and to be run as efficiently as possible.

“Ministers have been tasked to draw up plans to return the civil service to its 2016 levels over the next three years and that work is ongoing.”

The team behind Truss, who polls show is leading Rishi Sunak in the race to succeed Johnson, was forced to redo some of its sums within hours of releasing a series of proposals to reduce the cost of the civil service.

Steven Littlewood, assistant general secretary of the FDA, which represents senior civil servants, said: “It has been obvious from the outset that these job cuts were based on an arbitrary number and were announced with headlines in mind rather than a workforce strategy.

“The fact that they are undeliverable without a huge detriment to frontline services will come as a surprise to no one with any knowledge of how public services operate.”