Cutting civil service by 91,000 will require 'imagination' admits senior Whitehall official

ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports on the large cuts planned for the civil service

Whitehall's most senior official has admitted to colleagues that reducing the headcount of civil servants by 91,000 - a cut of almost a fifth of the total - will require "imagination", according to a letter leaked to ITV News. 

In a message to permanent secretaries - who run individual departments - the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, also called for "skilful collaboration", as he set out the plan to colleagues to start reducing the numbers from around 475,000. 

It came as senior ministers told ITV News that the prime minister had suggested looking at projects launched by their predecessors, and asking themselves - were they really necessary?

ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports on how the civil service has reacted to the news?

The civil service is not just Whitehall departments, but offices spread all around the country, including those delivering frontline services in job centres, at the DVLA and Passport Office. The Institute for Government said this scale of reduction could not happen while also protecting the frontline. 

In his letter, Case revealed that the programme would be led by himself, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the prime minister's chief of staff, Steve Barclay, and a third cabinet minister in charge of finding government efficiencies, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Case wrote that the aim was to reduce the civil service to the size it was before Brexit. 

"Returning to 2016 levels means reducing our current workforce by around 91,000 over that timeframe," he added. 

Simon Case's letter as seen by ITV News. Credit: ITV News

Discussions will start in the final week of May - under the Efficiency and Value for Money Cabinet Committee - with permanent secretaries asked to work closely with their secretaries of state. 

Cabinet sources told ITV News that when Boris Johnson spoke to them about plans, at a Cabinet away day in Stoke on Thursday, he began by praising the work of civil servants, who he said were responsible for supporting ministers in all their work, and insisted it wasn't an attack.

But senior civil servants reacted to the plans with shock and anger - particularly after feeling attacked about officials continuing to work from home. Mr Rees-Mogg has left notes on empty desks saying "sorry you were out when I visited". 

When he was challenged with a huge survey that suggested 85% of people think they are as or more efficient when working from home on ITV's Peston this week, Mr Rees-Mogg responded by suggesting people were lying in the survey.

Senior civil servants told ITV News that morale was low and that some who had joined the service through what is known as the "fast-stream" - for talented graduates who are then accelerated into leadership roles - were now wanting to leave. 

Sources said there were no immediate plans for redundancies and instead they would start with a recruitment freeze and by stopping vacancies being filled without special permission from a minister. Staff would then be redeployed internally.

However, Alex Thomas from the Institute for Government, said that while there was room to slim down - after the civil service ballooned through Brexit and Covid - ministers needed to be careful about the speed of cuts. He said "blanket recruitment bans" could hit the wrong people. 

He also said it would be impossible to get the numbers so low without redundancies and "it also makes it impossible to restrict the reductions to 'non-frontline' roles as had been previously announced." 

He said there were only around 90,000 non-frontline roles and many would have to stay, but also some of the most likely areas for efficiencies would be in digitising frontline services, which would inevitably hit officials dealing directly with the public. Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants said this could not happen without forcing officials to stop providing frontline.Meanwhile, those running departments rushed out messages to apologise to staff for how the news had come out, and admit they didn't have details about their own departments yet Jim Harra, permanent secretary at HMRC, has written to all staff apologising that they heard about civil service cuts via media. In email that ITV news has seen he says "no decisions" yet on how will impact his dept. He does say: "It is only a few weeks since we received our departmental budgets for the next three years. However, since then the outlook for the UK economy has changed and we must now consider how we can streamline our services and work with our ministers to review their priorities."Mr Harra then thanks staff for their hard work and professionalism. A similar letter had been sent out by the permanent secretary in the Department for Housing and Levelling up, Jeremy Pocklington, in which he promises to be as "clear and straightforward on the detail on what this will mean for DHLUC" as soon as he has the information.