Union chief attacks 'vindictive' ministers over move to end WFH

Civil service union chief accuses ministers of being ‘vindictive’ and ‘obsessed’ by WFH as Jacob Rees-Mogg orders staff back to the office across Whitehall – with new figures revealing some departments are still just a QUARTER full

  • Jacob Rees-Mogg has ordered Cabinet ministers to end work from home culture
  • Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, accused him of being ‘vindictive’ 
  • Many government departments are not even at half capacity, new data shows
  • The Department for Education has 25 per cent of staff working in the office
  • Mr Rees-Mogg, minister for efficiency, said ‘significant progress’ is needed

Unions reacted with fury today as ministers were ordered to end Whitehall’s work from home culture – after official figures revealed just how few staff are back in the office.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, accused Jacob Rees-Mogg of being ‘vindictive’ and obsessed with ending flexible working after the minister demanded mandarins return to Westminster.

Critics of home working claim it makes staff less productive and creative, damages career prospects and harms the economies of town centres.

Two years on from the start of the Covid pandemic, many government departments are not even at half their capacity.

Several key ministries – including the Foreign Office and Department for Education – had on average less than a third of staff in the office over the first week in April, data shows. 

But Mr Penman today complained: ‘There is no rationale for this. Ministers can’t point to productivity losses, which is why it’s always anonymous sources making the insulting accusations. 

‘Ministers’ obsession with ending flexible working and micro-managing the civil service increasingly just looks vindictive.’

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, accused Jacob Rees-Mogg of being ‘vindictive’ and obsessed with ending flexible working after the minister demanded mandarins return to Westminster.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has written a letter to the Secretaries of State saying that ‘significant progress’ is needed to get offices back to full capacity

In a letter to the Secretaries of State, Mr Rees-Mogg, the minister for government efficiency, said ‘significant progress’ was needed to get offices back to full capacity.

 While the number of staff at their desks in Whitehall has increased in recent weeks, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels despite the end of Covid curbs. 

The Department for Education had just 25 per cent of staff in the office in the week beginning April 4 – although officials said the school holidays meant it was not representative.

Despite multiple pressures on the Home Office, including migrant crossings and processing visas for Ukrainian refugees, on average only 42 per cent of staff were at their workplace.

The Foreign Office, a key department responding to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, saw just 31 per cent of staff in its King Charles Street building that week.

And despite the cost of living crisis, the Department for Work and Pensions had just 27 per cent of its civil servants at their desks.

Astonishingly, the figures could overestimate the numbers in the office as some departments recorded the figures by asking security staff to click people in – and then loosely adjusted the figures to account for lunch breaks. 

Other departments used data from pass readers. The figures suggest that a plea issued by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay three months ago for departments to return to full occupancy fell on deaf ears.

In his letter to Cabinet ministers, Mr Rees-Mogg wrote: ‘We must continue to accelerate the return of civil servants to office buildings to realise the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working and the wider benefits for the economy. 

‘To deliver this, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I urge you to issue a clear message to civil servants in your department to ensure a rapid return to the office.’ He also said the figures ‘show we have significant progress to make’.

Tory MPs urged Boris Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to ‘bang the desk’ to get civil servants back into Whitehall.

Staying put: Many are still avoiding the office in favour of their home working set-up

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, of the 1922 Committee, said: ‘There are severe signs of the civil service not being as effective as it should be – and I think that’s because for the bulk of the period they need to be back at work.’

But the FDA civil service union accused Mr Rees-Mogg of ‘micro-managing’. It added: ‘Ministers should be concerned with what is being delivered by civil servants, not where their desk is.’

A government spokesman said: ‘Ministers have been clear that departments should make maximum use of office space and progress is being monitored.’

On Saturday, the Daily Mail revealed that departments allowed staff to work in the office for only two days a week.

When civil servants were sent home in the first lockdown, it led to ‘backlog Britain’ as motorists, travellers and new parents were left waiting months for vital documents that could not be processed remotely.

One mandarin, Sarah Healey, admitted she enjoyed being at home so she could ride her Peloton exercise bike.

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