Government 'could use compulsory redundancies' to cut civil servants by 91,000, ITV News reveals

Credit: PA

The government is prepared to use compulsory redundancies to massively cut the number of civil servants by 91,000 in three years, despite earlier claiming that a recruitment freeze would be enough to meet the target, a document leaked to ITV News suggests.

It also implies that some departments could be forced to cut staff numbers by 40% - a number twice as high as expected - and makes clear that frontline jobs will not be protected, as they were in previous efforts to reduce numbers.

And it reveals that some government activity will need to be "deprioritised".

The report, entitled Civil Service 2025 and labelled 'Official-Sensitive', offers departments "technical guidance" to help achieve the aim of dramatically reducing the government headcount.

The 91,000 represents a 20% cut across the whole of government - taking the numbers back to the levels of 2016, before Whitehall expanded to cope with Brexit and then Covid.

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But the document calls on officials to draw up plans to go much further as well, suggesting that different departments could be hit at different levels.

"Departments and other civil service organisations need to develop detailed workforce plans demonstrating how they will reduce their civil service workforce numbers by 31 March 2025," it says.

"This will need to cover three scenarios: 20%, 30% and 40% savings."

Jacob Rees Mogg - the minister in charge of government efficiency - had said the cuts could be achieved by natural attrition because of the number of officials who leave or retire each year. He suggested that a recruitment freeze would be enough to get to the 91,000 target.

But this document - circulated throughout government - says: "Recognising the challenge of reducing Civil Service numbers to 2016 levels by 31 March 2025, departments should also include an initial assessment of the extent to which it might be necessary to use voluntary exit schemes or redundancies (voluntary and compulsory) so this can be considered as part of wider planning."

While an attempt to cut numbers late last year came with the promise to protect the frontline, this document says: "All civil servants within your departmental group are in scope, including those working in executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies."

That means the cuts could impact frontline staff such as those in job centres, or working as prison guards, but it doesn't extend to the NHS or those working for councils.

The papers also make clear that the cuts will affect what the government does, calling on senior officials to include "activities that may need to be deprioritised" - and asking for them to highlight "significant impacts" on government priorities such as levelling up.

Screenshots from the report, entitled Civil Service 2025

Although the document does not set out any final decisions - it seems to be preparing the ground for the likely direction that the policy will take.

The demands on departments are likely to cause tensions within the Cabinet.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that the foreign secretary had written to Boris Johnson in March to resist an earlier policy cutting the headcount in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office by just 5% and had instead called for 1,000 more staff to be hired.

ITV News understands that since the bigger policy to cut numbers was revealed, Liz Truss is no longer pushing to hire more staff, but she will push back against the scale of cuts being demanded.

"Liz doesn’t think we should be chopping lots of foreign office staff during a war in Ukraine, when authoritarians all over the world are emboldened, and when Britain needs to deepen its influence in an increasingly uncertain world," a foreign office source said.

However, if some departments are protected, then others will have to go further because of the overall target.

Liz Truss is no longer pushing to hire more staff, ITV News understands. Credit: PA

Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government, said: “This is the sort of exercise that governments do when they need to cut budgets or staff. Modelling reductions of up to 40% of staff is a big cut but is a logical consequence of setting the 91,000 workforce reduction target."

He suggested it wasn't surprising to see Ms Truss push back and expected others would too.

"It will need ministers to take some tough decisions about their priorities and the quality of service they want to deliver and so we can expect to see some Cabinet ministers push back on Rees-Mogg’s demands.

"The risk is that cuts fall in the wrong places and on the wrong people because of a narrow focus on civil service headcount instead of saving money and improving efficiency,” he said.

Mr Thomas pointed out that the plans have to include a cover letter by the secretary of state endorsing the scenarios - meaning they would have to accept the scale of the cutbacks before signing them off. He also argued that the plans were connected simply to headcount and not to what the government needed to do.

He added that the document does not ban or formally limit the use of outside consultants. It says their use will be scrutinised and the costs should be lower than the current forecasts, but that could be a way that departments try to get around the headcount cuts.

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect, a union with civil servants among its members, said: “This arbitrary figure of 91,000 civil service job cuts from the government was always going to be a shambles and will directly impact on the ability of the civil service to carry out its duties.

“The government has no strategy here, no plan, just an ideological wish to cut numbers. Make no mistake, if we reduce headcount by this then services that the country relies on will end."

When asked for a response to ITV News' findings, the Cabinet Office pointed to the prime minister's speech today. "It cannot be right that the size of central government has increased by 23% since 2015," he said.

"There are 91,000 more officials than there were. I believe we have the best civil service in the world, but in view of the pressure now on families we have got to find efficiencies and prune back Whitehall to the size it was only five or six years ago.

"I think that is something we can achieve without harming the public services they deliver."