15 December 2016

The latest civil service staff numbers show that Whitehall has started to prepare for Brexit, but the figures for new departments have not yet been published. Adam Boon looks at the latest data.

It was expected that yesterday’s numbers would include the first numbers for the new departments: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). Unfortunately, they don’t – the ONS promising that ‘Statistics will reflect the new civil service departments when it is possible for the departments to accurately report in this way’.

The fact that the new departments are unable to ‘accurately report’ their staff numbers shows the disruptive effect machinery of government changes can have on the business of government. Knowing how many people are working for you – especially when preparing for a challenge like Brexit, as two of these departments are – seems like basic information, and vital information as these departments plan for the challenges ahead.

Staff in the three new departments (DExEu, DIT and BEIS) are still being reported under old structures 

BEIS and DIT staff are still being reported under old departments (Business, Innovation and Skills and Energy and Climate Change) even though they were abolished in July. DExEU staff are included in Cabinet Office numbers or temporarily in other departments if they have transferred over.

Prior to the Prime Minister’s reorganisation, the Institute for Government warned about the operational drawbacks of creating a new fully-fledged Brexit department – it’s time-consuming, costly and ultimately a potential distraction. This lack of detail on numbers after six months shows how disruptive MoG changes can be, and it’s also not helpful for workforce planning.

The overall size of the civil service has declined by 20% since 2010

The overall size of the workforce is 384,950, a cumulative decrease since the 2010 spending review of 18%. In our briefing paper Silence is not a Strategy, we said that Whitehall would need extra staff to plan its approach to Brexit. From July to September this year, staff numbers across Whitehall increased by 720.

HMRC has become the second largest departmental group

The size order of departmental groups remained largely the same over the last quarter. Through a combination of staff increases at HMRC and reductions in MoJ (from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service and the National Offenders Management Service), HMRC has now become the second largest departmental group. BEIS and DIT staff are still being reported as being in BIS and DECC – so we can only continue to estimate that if the size of BEIS is a straightforward combination of BIS and DECC, it would be the sixth largest departmental group.

CO and DfE had the largest percentage increase in workforce in the last three months

The ONS state some DExEU staff are being reported as being in CO, which likely accounts for the 9% (210 people) increase in staff over the last three months. CO staff numbers only increased by 0.5% in the previous quarter. There is clearly a ramping up of the CO workforce beyond previous levels as part of Brexit preparations. Having to speculate on this so long after a machinery of government change makes it difficult to get a clear sense of the level of resourcing that is dedicated to Brexit.

The Autumn Statement provided some detail on financial resources been given to the three ‘Brexit departments’ (DExEU, DIT and FCO) – this added up to £412m. In order for Whitehall to be properly prepared to deliver Brexit, the new departments need the right structures in place and the staffing process needs to be completed.

DfE had a 7% (270 people) increase, which is likely to be a result of taking over responsibility from BIS for Higher Education in July. Of the three largest departments DWP remained stable, HMRC increased by 580 and MoJ decreased by 640, but given the overall size of both workforces that is only a 1% change for each of these two departments.

CO now has a workforce 19% larger than in 2010

CO’s workforce over recent months has been around 9% above 2010 levels – today’s figures take CO 19% higher than 2010. Although when DExEU finally start reporting, these figures are likely to be adjusted downwards.

HMRC and DfE are seeing staff increases, which are slowly bringing their workforces closer to their 2010 level. Defra and DCLG continued their sustained downward trend and are now respectively 37% and 42% smaller than 2010.

As our recent paper on Whitehall’s preparation for Brexit shows, there are clear signs of progress in preparing for Brexit within the civil service. The inclusion of staff numbers for the new departments (which we hope will be in the next set of quarterly figures) will give us a better understanding of how well these preparations are going.   


Further information


‘Departments’ are the core department and other bodies within the department that are line-managed within a structure that flows from the departmental leadership (for example, the National Offender Management Service within MoJ, the Education Funding Agency within DfE). ‘Other organisations’ are other civil service bodies for which ministers in the department have responsibility (e.g. Ofsted in DfE, DVLA in DfT) but which  are not part of the department’s line management structure.

Abbreviations for government departments are available here.