Plans to axe 91,000 UK civil servants would ‘cut public services’

Government plans to axe up to 91,000 civil servants over three years will require deep cuts to public services and cost at least £1bn in redundancy payments, according to a Whitehall review.

Boris Johnson in May unveiled plans for the near 20 per cent reduction in headcount, and in June said he could “prune” back the civil service to 2016 levels “without harming” frontline services

However, government insiders said a review by Steve Barclay, his former chief of staff, had found otherwise. 

They added that the Barclay review had led the Treasury to “go cold” on Johnson’s plans after the emergence of the full upfront cost and impact on public services. 

But foreign secretary Liz Truss, the frontrunner to replace Johnson in September as Tory leader and prime minister, is backing proposals to cut civil service costs. She has vowed to wage “a war on Whitehall waste”.

One Whitehall insider who has worked on the plans to cut 91,000 civil servants said that it had become clear that Johnson had made his announcement — which was greeted with enthusiasm on the rightwing of the Conservative party — without fully thinking through the implications. 

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

One government insider said the proposals to axe 91,000 civil servants would involve “serious cuts” to staff at HM Revenue and Customs, Border Force and prisons. “And you couldn’t protect jobs outside London,” added the insider.

Although estimates were not finalised, another Whitehall insider said a figure of £2bn had been discussed as a working assumption on the cost of compulsory redundancy payments.

Truss’ campaign team endorsed the government plan to cut 91,000 civil servants last week — after being forced into a U-turn on proposals to introduce regional pay scales in the public sector to save an estimated £8.8bn a year. 

Brandon Lewis, the former Northern Ireland secretary who is backing Truss to be the next Tory leader, told the BBC the ditched policy on regional pay boards was part of a “wider package around dealing with waste in Whitehall”.

Citing Johnson’s target to cut 91,000 officials, which would return the civil service to the historically low levels of 2016 that followed six years of reductions under the then prime minister David Cameron, Lewis said: “We’ve got to get back to those levels.” The proposed cuts are meant to save £3.5bn a year.

The government currently employs 475,000 civil servants compared with a low point of 384,000 in 2016. The biggest growth in officials has come at the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department of Work and Pensions.

The demands on Whitehall have increased in recent years, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic but also because of government policies such as recruiting 20,000 police officers.

The UK’s departure from the EU has required the expansion of the Department of International Trade to negotiate trade deals, while Britain’s post-Brexit immigration regime has increased demands on immigration and Border Force staff.

The Cabinet Office 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.”

It added it was too early to speculate on how the reductions in headcount would be made, but that a range of options included not filling vacancies as civil servants move to the private sector or retire. Consultations with trade unions were continuing, said the Cabinet Office.