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The UK might get rid of 90,000 civil service jobs

These layoffs would bring the industry back to the size it was in 2016.

The civil service helps governments develop and implement their laws and policies so that public services run as smoothly as possible. The UK civil service currently employs around 475,000 people. Their jobs touch on all aspects of life in the UK, from education to transport to prison management.

A month or so before he was yeeted out of office, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked his cabinet ministers to reduce the civil service staff in their departments by a fifth. His reasoning was that the public would be better off if the government took the money it currently spends on these civil service salaries and spent it on other stuff, like tax cuts. Of course BoJo is now out of a job himself. But as most of the politicians currently vying to replace him are also into cutting back on government spending and reducing taxes, it seems likely that the plan to trim down the civil service will remain.

Is it a good plan? Reducing taxes can be popular, and might be especially popular now, considering UK inflation (how much prices have increased year-on-year) hit 9 percent in May 2022 and is squeezing people's budgets. But it doesn't necessarily follow that mass civil service layoffs are the best way to fund these tax cuts. The government could get the cash it wants in a number of different ways, including cutting back on something else or taking out more debt.

Fans of BoJo's plan could point out that it’s not like the UK can’t function with a smaller civil service: the number of civil servants has grown by almost 25 percent since 2016, so the layoffs would only revert it back to how it was six years ago. Moreover, it’s not necessarily true that more people means more work gets done. If worker productivity (essentially how good the work is) goes up at the same time as worker numbers go down, the overall work output would remain roughly the same. This could feasibly be achieved if the civil servants who were let go were low performers, or if the remaining staff had enough slack in their day to easily take on more work.

But that’s a big if. Plenty of people would question the assumption that there's much unproductive fat to trim in the civil service, given that there are currently huge backlogs in the provision of many government services (a legacy of two years of Covid restrictions and closures). Indeed, many civil service departments are saying they need to hire more people in order to do their job effectively. Take the Passport Office, who have recently hired 700 extra staff members, or the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), who have said they will recruit an additional 300 driving test examiners.

This data suggests that having fewer civil servants about might just mean a lot less work getting done, and that could negatively affect the public. Just look at how the current huge delays in getting passports and driving licences are hitting people’s economic and social wellbeing, because both those documents are used by people to work, to get to important events, and to meet up with loved ones. Another, perhaps even more important example of the problems with backlogged government service is the issuing of visas, including for refugees from the Ukrainian crisis. There have been reports of there being such long delays in the creation of these documents for those that are eligible to cross the border that some Ukrainians have given up on entering the country.

How the potential cons of having fewer civil servants should be weighed against the potential pros of tax cuts is an open question, as is how much importance should be given to the fact that the plan also risks making financial ends harder to meet for the tens of thousands of Brits who would be laid off. As with most economic decisions, there is unlikely to be a scenario in which everyone wins.

Read our explainer on: government budgets

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