Boris Johnson’s plan to cut civil service risks ‘adverse impacts’, memo says


Boris Johnson’s plan to cut more than 90,000 civil servants from the public payroll over the next three years risks having “adverse impacts” on public services, according to a leaked government memo.

Confidential guidance issued to Whitehall departments seen by the Financial Times says managers should mitigate the effects of the cuts “as far as possible”, but admits some departments are likely to have to scale back their plans.

“As far as possible, departments should aim to mitigate any adverse impacts on the delivery of public services and wider government priorities. However, it is recognised that in some instances departments will need to consider reprioritisation,” the memo said.

Johnson announced the promise to slash civil service numbers last month, a move supported by the rightwing of the Conservative party that helped deliver the prime minister’s narrow victory in Monday’s no-confidence vote.

In a speech aimed at resetting his administration, Johnson said the decision to “prune back” Whitehall departments could be achieved “without harming the public services they deliver”.

However, senior Whitehall insiders said talk of “reprioritisation” pointed to the inevitability of the cuts affecting public services at a time when the cost of living crisis was driving up demand.

One said it was “impossible” to deliver such swingeing headcount reductions by 2024-25 while maintaining all frontline services, such as prisons, probation, border checks, jobcentres, and passport and driving licence processing, at current levels.

“It is accepted that the government of the day has a perfect right to shrink the state to the size it sees fit, but it can’t escape the consequences of doing that,” said one insider working on the cuts.

The document, issued by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, instructs departments to deliver a detailed prospectus for 20, 30 and 40 per staff reductions by June 30. Final decisions are expected in the autumn.

The memo is also explicit that no areas are off-limits: “There are no civil servants or groups of civil servants that are exempt from these returns, regardless of the work they are undertaking.”

Around half of civil servants deliver frontline services, and four out of five are based outside London. Average pay stands at £40,109.82 and the government says it hopes to deliver immediate savings of £3.5bn by shrinking the civil service back to 2016 levels.

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

Lord Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service during the austerity-era reductions, said the cuts were like to have lasting impacts.

“We have huge backlogs in the passport office, in the criminal justice system, massive delays in the courts and for driving licences we have huge backlogs. If you cut [frontline services] further, I don’t think we’ll see a recovery,” he said.

The Institute for Government think-tank said the cuts demanded approximately the same levels of headcount reduction implemented over six years of austerity, but delivered in just half the time.

Rhys Clyne, senior researcher at the IfG, said the reductions could not be achieved through painless efficiencies to back office roles.

“They will have to include some frontline roles in the scope of the cuts. They will also have to include roles in the back office that the government has separately said they wish to prioritise,” he said.

Experts warned that the return to pre-Brexit staffing levels came as Brexit and government policies required an expansion of the government payroll, for example to staff five new prisons that ministers say will be needed following the recruitment of 20,000 police officers.

Jonathan Slater, a former permanent secretary in the civil service, said that if prisoner-staff ratios were reduced “you get more violence, more suicides, and more drugs in prison”.

A government spokesperson said: “It is crucial that all aspects of taxpayer spending demonstrates efficiency and value for money. It was right to grow the Civil Service to deliver Brexit and deal with the pandemic, but we must now return it to 2016 staffing levels and have asked all government departments to set out how this might be achieved.”



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