Saturday, January 21, 2006

Civil Service Cuts Mystery


You will recall the Gershon Efficiency Review, and how in the 2004 Budget- to general gasps of amazement/horror- the Iron Chancellor committed to cutting 84,000 Civil Service posts by 2008. And to show it wasn't just pie in the sky, he set out a specific target for each department (above).

So nearly two years on, how's he doing?

According to his own account, thing's are going swimmingly. In December's Pre-Budget Report he claimed to have already cut numbers by no less than 25,314 (net). He reckoned the Department for Work and Pensions had already cut 14,215, and HM Revenue and Customs 3,246.

However, according to the Office for National Statistics, nothing much has happened. Civil Service employment is down only marginally from 569,000 when he started to 567,000 when last sighted, both miles higher than the 475,000 Labour inherited in 1997 . And as Sir Humphrey pointed out, you must always be very wary of any apparent cuts in Civil Service numbers- whole divisions and even departments can be magicked out of the Service by the simple act of quangoization. You've really got to scrutinise the detail.

Unfortunately, there is no detail because the ONS's proffered Cabinet Office links all return a mysterious "page not found" error message. In fact, it seems no detailed Civil Service numbers have been published at all since...er, 1 April 2004.

Gordo and the statisticians can't both be right, can they? How mysterious.

To check, I've looked at the three departments who were always in line for the most drastic surgery- Department for Work and Pensions (net 30,000 cuts), Ministry of Defence (net 15,000), and the Chancellor's own departments (net 13,350). Together they account for 58,350 of the net 70,000 cuts (yes, we know the headline number was 84,000, but as with all Brown's slippery pronouncements, you have to check the small print: the actual cuts target was 70,000).

Start with MOD. They've been very busy producing voluminous Technical Notes describing in great detail "the various components of the Defence Efficiency programme, and how performance against them will be measured". Unfortunately, they don't seem to have made any actual cuts just yet. None at all. Hmm.

The Department for Work and Pensions seem to have done better. They say in their Autumn Performance Review 2005 that they've cut 13,750 posts since 1 March 2004- almost half way to meeting their 30,000 target. So give or take the odd five hundred shattered careers, they actually agree with Gordo.

Amazing. A government department that's actually axing its own Civil Servants.

Ah, well of course, it isn't quite like that at the DWP. As we've posted before, the place is a total shambles, lambasted by all and sundry for dire performance, and wrestling with rock-bottom staff morale. It's less a case of sacking people, and more a case of hoping to God at least a few people show up for work again next week. In reality, these cuts are less a triumph of managerial efficiency and more a symptom of a terminal malaise that is threatening the Department's viability.

What of Revenue and Customs? Incredibly, they also agree with the Chancellor- in their case, spot on, at 3,246 fewer posts. But again, the place has serious staffing problems: after all, it was bashed together only last year from the old Inland Revenue and Customs departments specifically to get rid of staff. As a slightly ludicrous aside, one of the Chancellor's other departments, HMT says it's making its own important contribution- a cut of 119 posts already, coupled with a bizarre and possibly life-threatening promise "to relocate 26.5 posts out of London by 2007-08".

So it's just possible the Chancellor's cuts numbers do add up- 25,314 . In which case, why no reduction in the ONS overall Civil Service numbers?

We strongly suspect the hand of Sir Humphrey. A "cut" is one thing: Civil Service establishments are quite another. There's an awful lot of deckchair rearranging going on somewhere.

The overall conclusion is that the promised Gershon cuts have not yet materialised. Civil Service numbers are pretty well unchanged since Brown made his announcment nearly two years ago.

Meanwhile, total public sector jobs have increased by another 100,000.

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