Boris Johnson has set out plans to cut up to 90,000 civil servants — equivalent to a fifth of Whitehall — in order to reduce UK government spending.

The prime minister told cabinet ministers to cut departmental headcounts during an away day in Stoke-on-Trent on Thursday.

Johnson told the Daily Mail that reducing the Whitehall headcount would generate savings that could be deployed to help the general public. “We have got to cut the cost of government to reduce the cost of living,” he said.

“Every pound the government pre-empts from the taxpayer is money they can spend on their own priorities, on their own lives.”

The civil service has grown by about 25 per cent to employing about half a million in recent years to deal with the operational complexities of Brexit and then the coronavirus pandemic. The growth has been particularly acute in London, despite ministers’ pledges to shift civil servants out of the capital.

Johnson has ordered ministers to put together proposals for job cuts for their departments within a month.

“The PM and ministers are clear that the civil service does an outstanding job delivering for the public and driving progress on the government’s priorities,” a government spokesperson said. “But when people and businesses across the country are facing rising costs, the public rightly expect their government to lead by example and run as efficiently as possible.”

The Financial Times revealed in December that the government had drawn up plans to cut the size of the civil service by 49,000 workers, returning it to its pre-pandemic level.

At the time, those cuts were set to be focused on “non-frontline civil service headcount”, excluding operational roles such as operating prisons and paying welfare benefits.

The new plan to cut 90,000 jobs would take the size of Whitehall back to its level before the 2016 Brexit vote and save about £3.5bn a year.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for efficiencies, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the two issues of Brexit and coronavirus were now “fading”.

He said each department would come up with its own proposals. “We need fewer people across the civil service, each department will be responsible for dedicating its resources,” he said.

The minister separately told Sky News that the government had a duty to spend taxpayers’ money properly.

“It’s about doing things properly. It’s about governing effectively and recognising that every penny we take in tax has to come off the backs of people working hard.”

Rees-Mogg described the idea of 90,000 cuts as “realistic but relatively unambitious”. He said the easiest way to cut staffing levels was to have a freeze on recruitment given that up to 38,000 civil servants leave Whitehall every year.

But Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union, described the proposals as an “outrageous act of vandalism” on Britain’s public services.

“These cuts to jobs come on the back of significant real-terms cuts in pay,” he said. “The big cuts to public services since 2010 have often proved an expensive error. These proposals risk doubling down on the mistake.”

The FDA civil service union described the announcement as “either another headline-grabbing stunt or a reckless slash-and-burn to public services”.

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