Last week Bob Kerslake, a former Whitehall chief, warned that the civil service was not big enough to implement Brexit while carrying out its other work. This is after it having been shrunk to its smallest size since the Second World War. This followed a Cabinet Office memo leaked to The Times claiming that Whitehall is struggling to cope with the scale of work created by the Brexit vote. Other reports claim the number of extra civil servants needed to implement Brexit ranged from 500 to 30,000. The higher figure was disputed by Chris Grayling who couldn’t see “what 30,00 extra people would do”. Looking at the table we can see how much sleeker the civil service is today compared with the late 1970s when Margaret Thatcher came to power.
It’s worth noting that these aren’t full time equivalent figures but headcount. The 57% fall in headcount masks the growth in part time employees in the civil service – it has been an exemplary employer in some respects (over half – 54% – of its employees are female) and has just over 100K part time employees – this brings down even further the number of full time equivalent (FTE) civil servants and the pressure on it to deliver a huge additional project on top of its current workload.
The thrust of successive governments has been to scale back the machinery of government – the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan aimed to reduce the number of civil servants by 10K FTE by 2016 – it fell short of this target by 11K (probably now luckily) but still, there was an 18% contraction in its size from 2010 to 2015. Even in the year to the end of March 2016 there were 8,677 more leavers from the Civil Service than entrants.
Civil Service staff numbers, March 2009 to December 2015
And of course, these staff falls aren’t evenly spread across Departments. Indeed some grew in size – analysis by the Institute for Government shows the expanding and shrinking parts of government but concluded that most of the losses were down to Scottish devolution.
Percentage change in civil service numbers (FTE), September 2015 to December 2015 (department)
Constricting the numbers of civil servants hasn’t gone unnoticed – staff reductions at HMRC led to phone waiting times tripling to nearly an hour and estimates of 3m people with the wrong tax code (Daily Telegraph 25 May 2016). Earlier this month a 2,500 recruitment drive for prison officers was announced after unacceptable levels of violence and a rise in prisoner suicides after a 30% cut in staff numbers since 2010. Departments like the DfE have grown in size to deal with a huge number of ambitious policies such as adoption, fostering and children’s services: the academisation of schools; taking on the remit for higher education and skills and apprenticeships; early years’ provision; safeguarding and wellbeing of children; equalities and narrowing the disadvantage gap; and education.
Much of the discussion around Brexit has centred on trade and the economy but the House of Common’s library’s impact analysis across 20 policy areas illustrates beautifully the reach of Brexit from sport to international development, policing to consumer rights, human rights to pensions and defence to tax. There doesn’t seem to be a Whitehall department that escapes the clutches of Brexit and a shedload of complex work for civil servants.
Last week in his autumn statement, the Chancellor set aside £412m of additional funding to help Whitehall tackle the extra work created by Brexit – it’s difficult to forecast whether this will be enough to oil the existing wheels of government, tackle the impending crisis in the NHS, social care and prisons and staff the new Department for Exiting the EU.