foreign and commonwealth office
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall

The government has reduced the number of civil servants by almost a fifth since it embarked on spending cuts in 2010, while public sector pay curbs have narrowed the wage gap with the private sector.

As health and civil service workers prepare to strike next week over pay, two sets of data on Thursday demonstrated the impact of austerity on Britain’s public sector workforce.

The Office for National Statistics said there were 439,900 civil servants in March this year, 17 per cent fewer than in 2010 when the coalition government started its nine-year programme to close Britain’s budget deficit.

The axe has fallen most heavily on the lower levels of the civil service: in the past year alone the number of administrative-level staff fell 9.4 per cent, while the number of senior civil servants rose 11.8 per cent. The result has been a shift towards a more top-heavy civil service. Administrative officers and assistants now account for 40.7 per cent of the total, down from 46.6 per cent in 2010. The proportion of people on the more senior grades 6 and 7 has increased from 6.9 to 8.6 per cent.

The civil service has also grown older: the median age was 46 this year, up from 44 in 2010. Almost 40 per cent of civil servants were over 50. Meanwhile, almost four in 10 senior civil servants were women, up from about three in 10 before the crisis.

The government’s austerity programme – which has just reached the halfway mark – is forecast to cut the size of the total public sector workforce by more than 1m. The government has also capped public sector pay rises at 1 per cent a year and reduced the generosity of pensions.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found the pay differential between equivalent public and private sector workers – which expanded in the recession because the public sector was relatively insulated from the crisis – had returned to its pre-crisis size.

After accounting for differences in age, region and education, women in the public sector were paid about 8 per cent more than those in the private sector last year, while there was little difference for men.

Based on forecasts from the official fiscal watchdog, the IFS said the gap between public and private sector pay was set to go on falling until it reached levels last seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when parts of the public sector struggled to recruit and retrain staff.

“The challenge for policy makers now is to manage a large fall in the public sector workforce and a fall in public pay relative to the private sector, whilst also seeking to retain high-quality workers at the same time,” the report said.

However, the IFS pointed out that public sector pensions remained much more generous.

The vast majority of workers are still in defined benefit schemes, while only 12 per cent of people in the private sector enjoy these. The government has tried to contain the cost of these pensions. Without recent reforms, the report estimated the value of employer contributions to public sector pensions would have risen from almost 25 per cent of salary in 1997 to almost 35 per cent in 2011. Instead, average pension accrual in the public sector fell to 19 per cent in 2011.

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