Boris Johnson’s plan to cut more than 90,000 civil servants from the public payroll over the next three years is likely to have ‘negative impacts’, concedes a leaked government memo.
Confidential guidance to departments in Whitehall, seen by the Financial Times, says officials should mitigate the effects of the cuts “wherever possible”, but admits some departments are likely to have to scale back their plans.
“Where possible, departments should aim to mitigate any negative impact on public service delivery and broader government priorities. However, it is recognized that in some cases, departments will need to consider reprioritization,” the memo reads.
Johnson announced a pledge to downsize the civil service last month, a move backed by the right wing of the Conservative Party that helped the prime minister narrowly win Monday’s no-confidence vote.
In a speech aimed at resetting his administration, Johnson said the decision to “downsize” Whitehall departments could be made “without harming the public services they provide”.
However, senior Whitehall insiders said talk of ‘reprioritisation’ pointed to the inevitability of cuts to public services at a time when the cost of living crisis was driving up demand.
One said it was ‘impossible’ to make such downsizing by 2024-25 while maintaining all frontline services, such as prisons, probation, checks at borders, employment centers and the processing of passports and driving licenses, at current levels.
“It is accepted that the government of the day has every right to reduce the state to whatever size it deems appropriate, but it cannot escape the consequences of such action,” said an insider working on the cuts.
The document, published by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, asks departments to provide a detailed prospectus for 20, 30 and 40 per staff reductions by June 30. Final decisions are expected in the fall.
The memo is also explicit that no areas are prohibited: “There are no officials or groups of officials who are exempt from these returns, regardless of the work they undertake.”
Around half of civil servants provide frontline services and four in five are based outside London. The average salary stands at £40,109.82 and the government says it hopes to make immediate savings of £3.5billion by bringing the civil service back to 2016 levels.
The government currently employs 475,000 civil servants, down from a low of 384,000 in 2016. The biggest growth since then has been in the Department of Justice, Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions.
Lord Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service during the austerity-era cuts, said the cuts were like having lasting effects.
“We have huge backlogs in the passport office, in the criminal justice system, massive backlogs in the courts and for driving licenses we have huge backlogs. If you cut [frontline services] moreover, I don’t think we will see a recovery,” he said.
The Institute for Government think tank said the cuts required roughly the same levels of downsizing implemented during six years of austerity, but achieved in just half the time.
Rhys Clyne, senior researcher at the IfG, said reductions could not be achieved through painless efficiencies in back-office roles.
“They will have to include some frontline roles in the scope of the cuts. They will also need to include roles in the back office that the government has separately said it wants to prioritise,” he said.
Experts have warned that the return to pre-Brexit staffing came as Brexit and government policies demanded an increase in the government wage bill, for example to staff five new prisons which ministers say will be necessary after the recruitment of 20,000 police officers.
Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary for the civil service, said that if prisoner-to-staff ratios are 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 are efficient and value for money. It was right to develop the civil service to deliver Brexit and deal with the pandemic, but now we need to bring it back to 2016 staffing levels and have asked all departments to define how this could be achieved.