This post provides some facts to illuminate the discussion that the Tories have initiated on the size and efficiency of the civil service. All of the data used is from official Government statistics.
The number of non-industrial civil servants (the main target of Tory rhetoric) has been on a declining trend throughout the post war period. The Labour Governments of 1997-2010 started and ended with about 480,000 full time equivalent civil servants.
Under the conservatives, the full time equivalent civil service was cut by 20% to 384,000 between 2010 and 20016. The population per full time civil servant increased from 131 in 2010 to over 170 in 2016. This implies a massive increase in workload, because the main driver of much of the work that the civil service does is the size of the population they must deal with.
The subsequent increase in civil service numbers to 465,000 in 2021 was the direct result of BREXIT (well over 50,000 civil servants recruited to negotiate and then carry out functions previously performed by Brussels) and the pandemic. The increase reflects civil servants being recruited to do jobs that would have been entirely unnecessary in the absence of BREXIT and the pandemic. Further strains will since have been added by the cost of living crisis.
The civil service represents only 10% of employment in general Government. Looking more broadly, the 1997-2010 Labour Governments expanded both local and central Government employment, with two thirds of the extra staff being employed in health and education. This restored the pre-Thatcher ratio of one public employee per 11 people. The conservative led Governments from 2010 then cut numbers back to a ratio of 1 per 13 people, lower than under Thatcher.
The big story however is the catastrophic cuts in local Government employment since 2010. Employment in central Government was broadly stable at about 2.8 million during the coalition, before growing rapidly in response to BREXIT and the pandemic. Local Government employment in contrast has fallen from 2.9 million in 2010 to just 2 million in 2021 – a loss of close to one in three of the workforce. Some of this may be the result of changed responsibilities (e.g. the growth in academy schools). Nevertheless, the catastrophic scale of the cuts is just one indicator of the extent to which the conservatives have severely damaged the capacity of local Government. Many of the services on which the population depends are most efficiently planned and delivered locally, as pandemic experience has illustrated.
In Conclusion: if anyone in the UK Government is lazy and useless, it is not the civil service. The Prime Minister could not be bothered to find out the facts before throwing baseless allegations at the increasingly hard-working civil servants on whom his Government depends. The drive to reduce numbers further will be yet another self-inflicted wound. Civil servants of worth and integrity are already leaving in droves to avoid having to work for this Government of incompetent liars prone to blaming anyone but themselves for their failures. A drive to reduce numbers will assist even more of the experienced and competent ones to leave.