640,000 – but for how long? Ministers reveal size of the civil service

Whitehall employs almost two-thirds of a million people, official government figures disclosed yesterday – but the total seems likely to soon fall.

According to what Downing Street said was the first snapshot of the size of the Whitehall machine, central government directly employs 640,000 staff and another 20,000 consultants and temporary staff.

The figures were released as George Osborne, the Chancellor, prepares to lay down a tough limit in overall Whitehall spending in the next week's Budget. It is bound to lead to substantial redundancies as departments are forced to slash expenditure.

Civil service unions said last night that the figures were being released as a softening-up exercise for deep job cuts.

By far the most heavily staffed central government department, with 67,520 civil servants, is the Ministry of Defence, where ministers want to cut running costs by at least 25 per cent.

The next biggest payrolls are at the Department for Work and Pensions (12,913 staff), the Foreign Office (4,432) and the Department for Business (3,707).

However, many more civil servants work for agencies that are at an arm's length from central government.

The Jobcentre Plus network employs 88,299 staff, while the nation's taxes are collected by the 82,852 employees of HM Revenue and Customs. Both organisations are certain to face pressure to find efficiency savings over the next year.

The National Offender Management Service, which runs the prison system, employs 50,826, while the Probation Service has 22,136 staff. The immigration service, now called the UK Border Agency, employs 25,442.

The legal system employs more than 28,000 people, with 19,962 in the courts service and 8,582 at the Crown Prosecution Service, which has already been earmarked for a cut of 16 per cent in its running costs.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea employs 5,992 staff, while 2,671 work for the Driving Standards Agency.

David Cameron's official spokesman said the figures were being released in the interests of transparency and added: "Over time we would expect the numbers to come down." A spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services union said: "There's nothing wrong in saying how many people work for the civil service. But it's wrong if it's a way of saying it's bloated, because that is not true. It seems to be part of a wider narrative to take action against not just the civil service, but the whole public sector."

The figures also suggested that the total cost of consultants and other temporary staff was close to £2bn a year. The biggest bills were run up at the Ministry of Defence (1,193 staff costing £146m), the Department of Health (1,062 staff costing £265m) and the Home Office (1,062 staff costing £244m).

Slashing the cost of consultants will be a priority for ministers in their onslaught on public spending bills. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, admitted the figures were "a bit rough and ready", but said: "We have to start gathering this kind of information straight away so we know what the total workforce of government really is.

Until now we've only had an incomplete picture of the true numbers of people working for us."

But the Cabinet Office faced embarrassment last night as the Department for Work and Pensions accused it of putting out inaccurate information. It denied that a subsidiary, the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, ran up a £9m bill for consultants.

Case Studies: 'Once again, we are going to get shafted'

More than £2bn was shaved off Britain's deficit this week as free swimming, a planned new hospital and help for the young unemployed were among projects axed by the Government. Yesterday more cuts emerged as the Arts Council England detailed £19m in savings and local authorities scrapped road safety partnerships. All over the country, public-sector workers and those who use the services they provide are bracing themselves for next week's Budget, in which the human impact of the savings will begin to be realised.

Hospital patient

Geoff Lilley, 60, retired bus driver, Hartlepool

I've a problem with hypertension and I was in hospital five weeks ago as an inpatient for a week. The University Hospital of Hartlepool is on my doorstep. Since my latest bout I have to go once every two months. I have also lost a bit of sight so I need to go the eye clinic for check-ups. This is one of the areas with the lowest rate of car ownership, so public transport links are very important. Our hospital has been going to close ever since 2003. But after the decision to scrap the new hospital, we don't know what is going to happen. The other hospital at North Tees is an hour-and-a-half away by public transport. We are going to get shafted again.


Kate Eaton, 48, and her daughter Cecilia, nine from Wandsworth.

I am up in arms about the decision to end free swimming. They are cutting it for the over-60s as well. At my daughter's school some of the children can't swim. We belong to Tooting Bec Lido but my daughter belongs to a swimming club too and we take advantage of free swimming at the weekend. A lot of older people with mobility problems can swim because the water supports them. But now it may be too expensive. Here at Tooting it costs £5 and you can stay for the whole day. At other swimming pools, you would not stay for so long making it very expensive as a family. It is a pity. It seemed as though they were encouraging more swimmers in the run-up to the Olympics. Now they are taking it all away. I am sure there are other areas which could be cut; this is just silly.

Immigration officer

Ashley Forecast, 44, spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services Union, Dover, Kent

At the moment we have 24 immigration officers in our team in Dover and 23 assistant officers. The plan is to reduce that to one officer per shift and 19 assistant officers. We are facing a huge cut in the number of staff which will mean we can carry out fewer visits and operations into those foreign nationals who are either working here illegally or who have overstayed their welcome.

My wife is an immigration officer as well and we are both potentially out of work. We also have a baby due in August. I have been there for 10 years and my wife for seven years. What they are saying is that they are changing everything around and that we are 30 staff over the top, and that means making the remainder of staff reapply for their jobs – so, if you are not successful, you are out of a job. Some colleagues have been doing this for 25 years. It is very difficult to get a job around here. I am concerned it will be hard to transfer my skills in to the private sector.

People are very concerned they are going to lose their homes. They have been cancelling their holidays and not buying things. They are trying to save whatever money they can and just don't know what is going to happen. We consider ourselves to be a front-line service protecting the UK from crime and terrorism and from people who come here to take advantage of the benefits and health system. The Government says it wants to get tough on illegal immigration and sort out the mess, and now 30 of our officers are going to lose their jobs.

By Jonathan Brown and Sophie Maden

Focus: Sheffield

Nick Clegg need only look to his political back yard for a warning of the impact of cuts on real people in real communities.

The Deputy Prime Minister's constituency of Sheffield Hallam is more dependent on public sector jobs than almost any other seat: more than 40 per cent of jobs are in education (notably the city's two universities) or health.

The city has already suffered the loss of an £80m government loan to the company Sheffield Forgemasters, a £13m grant to redevelop a former steelworks and £12m for a retail development site. More pain appears to be on the way.

One out of three jobs across the city is funded from the public purse. Public sector employment in Sheffield rose by 55 per cent between 1998 and 2007, the largest increase in the country. It is home to thousands of civil service jobs, including in the departments for Children, Schools and Families, Work and Pensions, the Home Office and HM Revenue and Customs.