Rees-Mogg cites potential of ‘automation and tech’ as plans are unveiled to axe 91,000 officials

Written by Tevye Markson on 16 May 2022 in News

Union chief criticises as ‘reckless’ ministers’ intention to return Whitehall headcount to 2016 levels

Credit: Parliamentary Copyright/Open Parliament Licence v3.0    Image has been cropped

Ministers have claimed that increased use of automation and other new technologies can help government deliver on its intention to reduce the headcount of the civil service by 91,000.

Boris Johnson last week asked departmental ministers and the  head of the civil service to come up with a plan to bring civil service staff numbers down to 2016 levels, meaning 91,000 roles – about a fifth of the current workforce – would be axed.

The PM said the civil service had become "swollen" during the Covid pandemic, while government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said the cuts are about “doing things more efficiently”.

Announcing the plans in an interview with the Daily Mail, Johnson said: “We have got to cut the cost of government to reduce the cost of living.”

Rees-Mogg told Sky News the easiest way to cut numbers would be to implement a hiring "freeze", as almost 40,000 civil servants leave their roles each year.

There were around 475,000 civil servants as of December, compared to around 384,00 in June 2016, a rise of around 91,000.

Rees-Mogg said that change – which came as civil servants were hired to deal with the challenges of Brexit and the Covid pandemic – could now be reversed as “those two issues are now fading”.

Asked on the Today programme what the government wanted to do less of, Rees-Mogg said: “We are actually going back to the level that we had at 2016. So it’s not a question of doing less of, it’s doing things more efficiently.”

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“We can also automate and use technology more so that you can have processes more efficiently carried out,” he added.

Unions have slammed the plans, with Prospect calling the cuts “an outrageous act of vandalism on our public services”.

Cabinet secretary Simon Case has told permanent secretaries that the PM has instructed him to work with Rees-Mogg, chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, to come up with a plan to reduce the civil service headcount.

In a letter leaked to ITV News, Case said discussions will start this month and perm secs will also work with cabinet ministers to agree plans for their own departments.

But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, said ministers could not cut jobs and expect the civil service to keep delivering everything it is doing now.

 “Ultimately they can cut the civil service back to 2016 levels, but they need to decide what the civil service must then stop doing as a consequence,” he said. "Unless they’ve got a serious plan, it’s either another headline-grabbing stunt or a reckless slash-and-burn to public services without a thought or care about the consequences.”

PCS meanwhile said its members would not be “scapegoats for a failing government” and the union would consider taking national strike action at its upcoming conference.

The Mail story suggested the cuts could save the government £3.75bn, which Rees-Mogg called a “realistic but fairly unambitious figure”.

The efficiency minister previously said he wanted to remove more than 65,000 civil service jobs in February.

His comments came after the Treasury set out plans in last year’s Spending Review to reduce non-frontline civil service roles to help fund increases to frontline roles.

But Alex Thomas, from the Institute for Government, said 90,000 cuts would be “too deep” to restrict to “back office” reductions.

The Cabinet Office and Treasury have both indicated that they do not have a clear way of defining “frontline” roles. Responding to a Freedom of Information request from PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World about how many frontline and non-frontline roles there are currently in the civil service, the Cabinet Office said it does not hold this data, adding: “Government is continuing to work to refine the available data within individual departments to provide the current view of the frontline and non-frontline workforce split.”

A government spokesperson said: "The PM and ministers are clear that the civil service does an outstanding job delivering for the public and driving progress on the government’s priorities.

"But when people and businesses across the country are facing rising costs, the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and run as efficiently as possible.”


About the author

Tevye Markson is a reporter at PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @TevyeMarkson.

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