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Jeremy Hunt, UK chancellor, has announced a £1bn plan to squeeze civil service numbers.

Hunt told the Conservative party conference in Manchester he would freeze recruitment to the civil service, which he said was “the best in the world”.

He said: “Even after the pandemic is over we have 66,000 more civil servants than before.”

The chancellor said he would freeze new hires and then begin to reduce the size of Whitehall to pre-Covid levels, a plan he said would save £1bn next year.

So far the party conference has been dominated by clamour from senior Tories, including some ministers, for UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and the chancellor to cut taxes before the next general election, expected in 2024.

But Hunt warned Tory activists that tax cuts could only come once the public sector was made more efficient and spending is under control.

Hunt added that fighting inflation was his top priority rather than tax cuts, telling the conference: “Nothing hurts families more.”

Hunt also sought to shift the debate from tax cuts to a focus on policies on pay and benefits.

He confirmed the government would raise the national living wage from £10.42 an hour to at least £11 an hour, which he described as “a pay rise for nearly 2mn workers”.

He also said the government would take steps to ensure that people actively looked for work. “It isn’t fair that someone who “refuses” to look for a job “gets the same as someone trying their best”, he said.

In a bullish speech, Hunt insisted that the battle against inflation was being won: “The plan is working and now we must see it through, just as Margaret Thatcher did many years ago.”

He added: “It’s time to roll up our sleeves, take on the declinists and watch the British economy prove the doubters wrong.”

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