November 11, 2010 • 6:45 pm

“We will soon have the smallest civil service since the beginning of the second world war.” Sir Gus O’Donnell, Head of the Civil Service, The Guardian, 11 November 2010


As Whitehall faces up to the implications of last months spending review, significant job losses are expected in most, if not all Government departments.

Yet despite the rise in public spending during the last Government, Sir Gus O’Donnell today makes the case that, actually, there is little fat to cut in terms of the civil service.

While the extent and even necessity of Whitehall cuts is subject to fierce debate, it is worth exploring the historic size of the civil service and whether Sir Gus’s claim checks out.


The figures kept by the Office for National Statistics only go back as far as 1991. These figures show that the civil service headcount as of the second quarter of this year was 523,000 – higher only than the figures for 1997-2001 and 2007.

However the information kept on the civil service website show that in a historical context, these figures are on the low side of the post-war years. As the graph below shows.

Their graph quotes 1939 as having a 347,000 strong civil service, which then shot up to over a million during the war, before falling back, with a steady decline through the 1980s.

Though we have been unable to obtain the data relating to this graph, we do have figures going back to 1970, courtesy of It seems clear that 1999 is the current low point for the post war era, when there were 477,000 civil servants according to the civil service website or 504,000 according to the ONS.*

So taking the 1999 figure as the amount below which civil service numbers would need to fall in order to validate Sir Gus’ claim, there would either need to be fall from 523,000 to below 504,000 (more than 19,000, on the ONS figures), or from 486,000 to 477,000 (a drop of over 9,000 according to the civil service website.)

With no definite number set on how many civil service jobs will go (be it through natural wastage or redundancies) there is still an element of uncertainty over whether Sir Gus’ forecast will come to pass.

Yet, some of the speculative figures in the press suggest it is not particularly fanciful.

Earlier this week The Guardian, published estimates suggesting that over 100,000 jobs in the civil service could go with 15,000 jobs going at the Department for Work and Pensions and 8,500 at the Home Office.

Likewise employees at HMRC were sent emails suggesting that 13,000 jobs could go by April 2015.

Yet with such figures yet to be confirmed it is impossible to say for certain how many of these will be recorded in the ONS civil service count.

What has been going up, certainly since 1997, is the number of public sector workers as a whole, possibly explaining the aim of Sir Gus in setting out the different story between public sector and civil service as a whole.

The graph opposite shows that following a sharp fall during the early 1990s, the public sector headcount rose by nearly 900,000 after 1997, while the graph above shows the number of civil servants hovering around the 500,000 mark, and if reports are to be believed looks set to drop off in the years ahead.

Of course, in these financially straightened times and given that all these civil servants needs paying, it would be interesting to put the numbers in the context of the total pay bill of the civil service, estimated to stand at around £17.4 billion.


While it is impossible to fact check job losses that are yet to come to pass, the civil service statistics for the number of civil servants, and the reported impending job losses make it seem like a reasonable claim to make.

Despite the relatively stable rate of civil service numbers in the last two decades, and the low levels relative to the last 60 years, there is likely to be little consensus on whether current or future levels are too high or too low.

*The difference between the figures is explained by the inclusion of workers such as casual workers in the ONS figure, as the chart in this PDF explains.


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