Boris Johnson’s plan to slash 91,000 jobs in the civil service is being watered down by new prime minister Liz Truss with the target unlikely to be hit by the end of the current parliament.
Jacob Rees-Mogg announced earlier this year, when serving as efficiency minister under Johnson, that a fifth of civil service roles would be cut in the next three years, taking numbers back to 2016 pre-Brexit levels.
The size of Whitehall has swollen as the government hired more staff to grapple with the dual challenges of leaving the EU and the Covid pandemic.
But Nadhim Zahawi, who last month was made Cabinet Office secretary with oversight of civil service reform, has concluded that the target is a “blunt instrument” and needs to be reviewed, according to officials.
Zahawi has told colleagues that although cutting 91,000 jobs could save the government £3.5bn annually, there was likely to be an upfront cost of £6bn-£7bn in redundancy payments.
The new government, formed only a month ago, is instead expected to take a more gradual approach to reducing the size of the civil service.
“Getting back to 2016 levels is still the overall ambition but that will now be done over a different timescale,” said one government figure. “That target is no longer set in stone.”
Instead, Truss’s administration will use a “hybrid model” to reduce Whitehall spending through efficiency savings as well as scrapping jobs.
Rather than pursuing redundancies, the government will shrink the size of the civil service through longer-term “churn” as people leave without being replaced.
Meanwhile, the government is considering reopening its flagship “fast stream” civil service graduate recruitment programme, which was controversially paused in the summer.
The decision to freeze the scheme, which brings about 1,000 graduates into Whitehall each year, for several years was part of broader plans to cut spending and reduce roles.
Asked if the fast stream could be reopened soon, one government figure said: “Watch this space.”
Rees-Mogg argued in May that the proposed reductions did not represent a return to austerity but were instead about effective government. “Every penny we take in tax has to come off the backs of people working hard,” he said.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA civil service union, said a limit on proposed compulsory redundancies was welcome.
But he said it was still “intellectually bankrupt” to try to shrink Whitehall to the size it was in 2016. “Whatever the timeframe chosen for cuts, if ministers want significant savings from the civil service they need to decide what it’s going to stop doing,” he said.
“Pretending there is ‘fat to be trimmed’ without impacting on public services is simply being dishonest with voters,” he added.