UK ministers are “picking a number out of the air” when setting civil service staffing targets amid reports the government wants to reduce its headcount by about 90,000, the head of a union has said.
The prime minister is understood to have given the cabinet the task of cutting staff by a fifth, saying every bit of cash saved on government spending could be better used elsewhere.
Johnson has reportedly ordered ministers to return civil servant numbers to those of 2016 levels in the coming years, with staffing having increased by almost 25% to 475,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
Ministers are expected to report back within a month with plans for achieving the cuts from their departments.
But Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the plans were “unrealistic”.
He said: “That’s what civil servants do. Part of their job is to think of how we do things more efficiently, and they have already committed to 5% cuts in their budgets as part of the spending review.
“That kind of ongoing efficiency is what the civil service does all the time. But if you’re going to just simply pluck a figure out of the air and say it’s now 90,000 because there is a convenient point in time where we liked the number, that is not a serious way to look at what does a government want to do and how can it deliver that in the most effective and efficient way.”
On Friday morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for government efficiency, made several media appearances defending the plans, saying about 38,000 people left the civil service each year and much of the saving could be achieved through a recruitment freeze. But he could not say which departments would be hit by the proposals.
Rejecting suggestions of a “return to austerity”, he told Sky News he had seen “duplication” within government departments and the axing will mean people are being used “as efficiently as possible”.
“What I’ve seen within the Cabinet Office, which is where I work and bear in mind each secretary of state will be responsible for his or her own department, is that there is duplication within government, so you have a communications department and then you have within another department some people doing communications.
“So it’s trying to ensure that you use the resources that you’ve got rather than duplicating it bit by bit.”
Asked why the cuts were not being described as a return to austerity, Rees-Mogg said: “I don’t think it is because what is being done is getting back to the efficiency levels we had in 2016.”
Mike Clancy, the general secretary of the Prospect union, said the proposal represented “an outrageous act of vandalism on our public services”.
“Through Brexit and then the pandemic we have never been more reliant in peacetime on our civil service,” he said. Our members are highly skilled and there is a real risk to government delivery from losing their vital expertise.
“They are vital to what the government want to do, whether that is levelling up or pandemic recovery. For them, these cuts to jobs come on the back of significant real terms cuts in pay. The big cuts to public services since 2010 have often proved an expensive error – these proposals risk doubling down on the mistake.”
A government spokesperson said “the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and run as efficiently as possible” as the nation faces rising costs.