One more plan to reduce civil servants may leave taxpayers sceptical

Taxpayers could be forgiven for being sceptical. There is a long history of attempts by governments to reduce the size of the civil service. It was targeted by Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, but there are still over 500,000 people working in the civil service, making up 1.7 per cent of the workforce. Three-quarters of them now work in executive agencies.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said the civil service had grown by 62,000 since Labour took office in 1997 - an average increase of 511 officials a week.

More than 20,000 posts are to be relocated outside London, but that, too, has been tried before. A total of 57,000 jobs were moved out of London after a report in 1963 by Sir Gilbert Flemming. That was reinforced in 1973 by the Hardman review. After Lady Thatcher won power in 1979 she ended the dispersals, saying it was costing so much to move the civil servants that it would be the 1990s before the benefits would be realised.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, was cheered by Labour MPs at his promise to cut waste to pay for a public spending boost for the general election. Their seats could depend on his arithmetic, and there were serious doubts last night that the cuts would add up. Even his friend Geoffrey Robinson, the former Treasury minister, said: "I'm not saying it can't be done but it is a very difficult task."

The big risk for Mr Brown is that the mandarins will make sure that the cuts apply lower down the pecking order, and that could eat into services.

The cuts of 104,000 in civil service numbers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will achieve savings of £20bn by 2007-08. Mr Brown said Sir Peter had said anything more could put frontline services at risk. The unions claimed that point would be reached, and benefit payments could be impaired.

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