Civil service staff numbers

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Who exactly are civil servants?

Civil servants are defined as staff who are “politically impartial and independent of government and work in central government departments, agencies, and non-departmental public bodies”. In this way, civil servants are defined much more narrowly than public sector workers and police, teachers, NHS staff, members of the armed forces or local government officers are not counted as civil servants.  

The data we use for our analysis of civil service staff numbers comes from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which provides quarterly estimates of the number of civil servants employed both in terms of absolute headcount and full-time equivalent.

ONS numbers focus on home civil servants (excluding the diplomatic service) classified as working in central government departments or the agencies they oversee. For example, the Met Office is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is overseen by the Department for Transport (DfT).

In our analysis, we include some agencies – like HM Prison and Probation Service at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) or the Education and Skills Funding Agency at the Department for Education (DfE) – within the main department figures, as they are directly line-managed by it, and you can find a full list of where we do that here.

Scottish and Welsh civil servants are included in the ONS figures, but the Northern Ireland Civil Service is not because it is administratively separate.

How many civil servants are there?

As of the end of December 2018, there were 408,800 full-time equivalent (FTE) civil servants.

Approximately 63% of civil servants work in the four largest departments, or their respective agencies and non-departmental bodies: Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Ministry of Justice (MoJ), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The majority of civil service staff in these departments work in the ‘core’ departments, rather than in the executive agencies or non-ministerial departments they oversee. These departments have the most staff because their work is focused on delivery and they are often client-facing. For example, DWP administers tax credits and pensions.

The five smallest departments in terms of staff levels are the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG); Treasury; Department for International Trade (DIT); Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS); and Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). The Treasury and MHCLG each have over 2,000 staff, while DIT and DCMS have 1,600 and 1,110 respectively. By contrast, DExEU, the smallest department, has an estimated 590 FTE staff.

However, DExEU figures are complicated by the fact that many employees are transferred from other departments. Some of these transfers are not yet officially reported under DExEU but under their old departments, and they do not appear in DExEU figures to avoid double counting. The ONS estimates that DExEU has a headcount of around 740.

Departments such as BEIS, DfT, Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have more of their staff in the bodies that they oversee than in the core department: there are 3,790 staff in BEIS’ core department, and 13,280 in the organisations it oversees, such as the Met Office.

How have staff numbers changed over time?

In the last year, the overall number of civil servants has risen by 3%, with numbers increasing by over 8,000 in the six months between June and December 2018. Recent statements from ministers suggest that, after six years of overall reductions from 2010, we should expect to see staff numbers continue to rise in preparation for the UK’s departure from the EU.

The increase in each of the last ten quarters means that over a quarter of the job cuts made between 2010 Q3 and 2016 Q2 have been cancelled out. Since 2010, the civil service had shrunk by nearly a fifth, reaching 384,260 at its smallest point in June 2016 — the smallest since WWII, though numbers never reached the 380,000 expected by the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan. But these overall changes can mask some other trends, for example, the proportion of staff at more senior grades has actually been increasing since 2012.

Seven departments – Department for International Development (DfID), Cabinet Office (CO), DCMS, DfT, DfE, the Treasury, and the Home Office – have seen the numbers of civil servants rise since 2010. The Cabinet Office and DfID have around 70% more staff than in 2010, with numbers increasing by 60% at DCMS, over 25% at DfE and DfT, 10% at the Treasury and 3% at the Home Office.

In all other departments, the numbers have fallen: by 40% at DHSC, a third at DWP, and over a quarter at MoD.

In the last quarter (September to December 2018) the biggest increases in staff were at Cabinet Office, MHCLG and Defra, which grew by 8%, 6% and 5% respectively.

In departments such as BEIS, Defra, and the Cabinet Office, staff increases are likely driven by Brexit and the heavier workload such departments face. The permanent secretary of Defra, Clare Moriarty, estimates that over 80% of the department’s activity is framed by the EU, and its workload is increasing significantly: the department has grown in each of the last eight quarters, and is now at its largest size since 2011 Q2, after being cut by 28% between the 2010 Spending Review and 2016 Q2. Home Office numbers have also risen in every quarter since the end of 2016.

As well as Brexit, other challenges in public services may also be driving the increase of staff. The overall number of staff at MoJ increased by more than 6,000 in the past year, most of which was at HM Prisons and Probations Service, reflecting its recruitment drive for new prison officers to quell soaring prison violence.


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Update date: 
Wednesday, March 20, 2019