In newspaper column invoking the Blitz, ex-Tory leader becomes latest senior politician to rail against officials working remotely
Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Archive/PA Images
Sir Iain Duncan Smith has been lambasted for sharing “ahistorical drivel” after claiming civil servants who are continuing to work from home as coronavirus cases rise are failing to live up to the legacy of officials who worked throughout World War II “regardless of the threat from falling bombs”.
In a comment piece for the Mail Online, the former work and pensions secretary said civil servants had failed to rise to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic “as the wartime generation would have done”, saying officials have instead “thrown their hands up in despair – before locking the doors and scuttling off home, of course”.
“When I think of all the brave civil servants who went to work in the 1940s, determined to do their bit regardless of the threat from falling bombs, I wonder what has happened to us as a nation,” he wrote.
The former Conservative leader was also scathing about the modern technology that has enabled large swathes of the UK workforce to work remotely during the pandemic.
“We thrive on laughter with colleagues or unexpected discussions at the coffee machine,” he said. “The awkward pantomime of a video conference call is no real substitute, let alone the narrow echo chamber of social media. There can be no question that being together makes us more productive, particularly in the face of complex or seemingly intractable problems.”
Duncan Smith said a minister had told him that so few civil servants have been working from their Whitehall offices that buildings feel “positively spooky in the evenings”.
His comments came the same day as a report that cabinet secretary Simon Case recently held a face-to-face meeting with departmental permanent secretaries encouraging them to speed up the return to offices.
Duncan Smith is the latest commentator to suggest that civil servants who have been working remotely throughout the Covid pandemic are not doing their jobs.
Tanja Bueltmann, who is chair in international history at the University of Strathclyde, described the comments as “ahistorical drivel”.
Responding on Twitter, she pointed out that thousands of civil servants were relocated “to work in safety” during the Blitz.
“By the end of 1940, for example, Llandudno had become home to over 5,000 Inland Revenue staff and Colwyn Bay saw the arrival of 5,000 from the Ministry of Food,” she said.
She also called the WWII analogy “rather disturbing”.
‘Old man screaming into the wind’
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union said that unlike their 1940s predecessors, current civil servants have access to “cutting-edge technology” enabling them to work from home, “saving taxpayer money and supporting the government’s levelling up agenda”.
“If you say you can only work in an office, you’re an old man on a park bench screaming into the wind,” he added.
Penman also noted that many government buildings have been sold off under the Conservative government, meaning that some departments have fewer desks than civil servants – necessitating a degree of flexible working.
Elsewhere in the piece, Duncan Smith took direct aim at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport permanent secretary Sarah Healey, who was recently the subject of a thinly veiled jibe from Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden, who told officials to “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.
Shortly beforehand, Healey had said the “lack of travelling time eating into my day” meant she had been able to spend more time on her own exercise bike, which had been a “huge benefit” to her wellbeing.
Duncan Smith said Healey was an example of the “comfortable classes” now “vigorously” championing working from home as a right for employees.
“She has certainly led by example, boasting about preferring to work from home as that allows her to spend more time astride her Peloton – an upmarket exercise bike,” he wrote.
“Never mind the damage all this does, not just to hundreds of thousands of small businesses, but to the wider economy and our social fabric.”
He said Dowden had “put it best” and agreed that “our public servants should lead by example, and the rest of us should join them”.
He said remote working officials are largely to blame for businesses being “choked to death” as they lose footfall in city centres.
Despite opposition to his comments, Duncan Smith said he was not “anti-civil service”, after Dowden was accused of the same.
“As it happens, nothing could be further from the truth. In my time in government, I had some quite brilliant civil servants without whose dedication I could not have developed the Universal Credit system,” the former work and pensions secretary said.
“These highly driven colleagues worked long hours at their desks and my respect for them is unending. Yet there are good reasons why all civil servants who remain at home should now return.”
The ex-Tory Party leader added: “I realise that civil servants are not alone in their reluctance to return to the office. Businesses up and down the land have faced the same problem – and they still do. But I have always thought that the role of the government and the civil service was to give a lead, now more than ever.”