But minister adds that return to office may deliver ‘productivity advantages’
Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA
Michael Gove has acknowledged that last week’s anonymous cabinet-level call for civil servants to be paid less if they continue working from home was “unhelpful”.
The Cabinet Office minister said prime minister Boris Johnson and the entire cabinet would be “forever grateful” for the way civil servants “stepped up brilliantly to the challenge of the pandemic” whether they were working remotely, in the office, or delivering services on the ground.
Gove praised departments and agencies for “taking a cautious and gradual approach to returning staff safely to their normal places of work” and stated that flexible working would be a key part of moving civil service jobs away from the capital.
However, he also insisted there were “clear productivity advantages” to office-based working in many cases.
Gove’s observations came in a letter to FDA general secretary Dave Penman, who last week called on the Cabinet Office minister to publicly distance the government from proposals to cut the pay of civil servants who did not return to their offices, made by an unnamed cabinet minister.
The suggestion, carried in a Daily Mail story, was followed by remarks from former work and pensions secretary Sir Iain Duncan Smith who said that staff working from home should not be entitled to a London weighting on their salary if they did not travel anywhere for it.
Penman told Gove that the comments had caused significant “upset and anger” among civil servants. He warned 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.
In his response, Gove said he entirely understood “the importance of placing on record my appreciation of the hard work, diligence and selflessness of civil service colleagues who have worked with such dedication during the pandemic”.
The Cabinet Office minister said that while ministers could not respond to every anonymous briefing to the media, there were “occasions when it is clearly right to knock down unhelpful commentary” and that the pay-cut call was one of those occasions.
“As minister for the Cabinet Office, and on behalf of the whole government, I want to make crystal clear that your members, and indeed the entire civil service, has stepped up brilliantly to the challenge of the pandemic,” Gove said. “Civil service colleagues have shown flexibility, resilience and great generosity of spirit in the last, difficult, 16 months. Working remotely or in the office, developing policy at speed or delivering services on the ground, the civil service has demonstrated the very best qualities of public service – and I know the prime minister and the entire cabinet will be forever grateful.”
Gove said that the “cautious and gradual approach” departments and agencies had taken to returning staff safely to their normal places of work in recent weeks reflected government guidance to all employers. He said it was “precisely what ministers would have expected of them”.
Gove added: “This approach, which builds on important learning during the pandemic, takes advantage of the benefits of home and office working, and reflects the fact that while there are in many cases clear productivity advantages to office working, technology provides a vital back-up.”
He said the lessons would be drawn upon as the government looked at how best to “adopt longer-term flexible-working arrangements” across the UK.
Gove agreed with Penman’s suggestion that flexible working is a lynchpin of the Places for Growth agenda. He said arrangements would be “crucial to delivering on our mission to be a government more like the country we serve, with more officials and as importantly ministers outside of London, and great career prospects regardless of where you work”.
He concluded: “Like the administrations that have come before us, and indeed those that will follow, we rely every day on the UK’s exceptional civil service – thank you for the opportunity to reiterate how fortunate we are that we can do so.”