Anonymous ministerial comments prompt warnings of potential strike action
Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/Press Association Images
The civil service’s biggest union has warned ministers to expect a wave of industrial action in response to any attempt to reduce the pay of departmental staff who opt not to return to their offices following the coronavirus pandemic.
PCS’s shot across the bows followed a proposal from an unnamed cabinet minister who told the Daily Mail that officials who continue working from home should earn less than counterparts in their normal workplaces. Downing Street has sought to distance itself from the unattributed comments.
The BBC reported the prime minister’s spokesman saying there were “no plans for that approach”, adding that departments would aim to increase office working gradually.
A PCS spokesperson said it was the “height of cowardice” for ministers to anonymously brief the media about docking civil servants’ pay for not returning to the office.
“PCS is engaged in serious discussions with the Cabinet Office about how we can embrace the post pandemic world with hybrid working and keeping staff safe,” they said. “Any attempt to dock pay for civil servants for any reason would be met with a swift industrial response, potentially including strike action.”
The FDA union, meanwhile, has urged Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to publicly reassure civil servants that the government is committed to flexible working.
An open letter from general secretary Dave Penman warned Gove that, in addition to insulting departmental staff who pioneered new ways of working during the pandemic lockdowns, a politically motivated crackdown on remote working risked jeopardising the government’s Places for Growth programme to spread the civil service more evenly around the country.
Referring to the anonymous ministerial comments, the union chief told Gove that he “cannot impress upon you enough the upset and anger these remarks have caused among civil servants”.
“These insulting and cowardly attacks require a response from the government, and I am asking you as minister for the Cabinet Office to assure civil servants that these views do not represent the views of the government, their employer,” Penman added.
He warned that criticism of remote working – coupled with the suggestion that it is akin to shirking – directly contradicted the main ethos of the Places for Growth programme, which aims to relocate around 22,000 government jobs away from London by the end of the decade.
In the letter, which was copied to cabinet secretary Simon Case, he said the programme would be dependent on an element of remote working. Penman also questioned whether those in government – including chancellor Rishi Sunak – who have been extolling the value of face-to-face meetings in recent weeks understood the message they were sending to staff who would be working outside London in future.
“If ‘face-to-face’ time is so critical to careers, what message should civil servants working in the Cabinet Office in Glasgow or HM Treasury in Darlington take, when, inevitably, they will have less ‘face-to-face’ time with ministers?” he asked.
Penman concluded: “I would urge you, therefore, to consider an urgent message to civil servants publicly distancing the government from the anonymous comments from cabinet ministers, recognising their incredible achievements over the last 18 months and assuring them of the government’s commitment to a well-managed transition to the new working arrangements.”
The general secretary of the Prospect union Mike Clancy also criticised the recent comments, claiming that “it is time ministers dialled down the rhetoric and started taking their own advice”.
“The image being painted of civil servants in recent days could not be further from the truth,” he added. “Our members, many of whom have been going in to work throughout the pandemic, want to learn the lessons of recent months to make sure that a hybrid model of work is successful in the future. We are working with government departments to make this a reality, and to ensure that offices are safe for people to return to, but this is not helped by ministers making threats anonymously about pay or terms and conditions in the media.”