Ministers urged to demand that officials make ‘a rapid return to the office’

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Barclay ramp up efforts to call time on widespread working from home

Credit: Phil Whitehouse/CC BY 2.0    Image has been cropped

Jacob Rees-Mogg has urged ministers to order civil servants to stop working from home and ensure offices are at “full capacity” following the ending of Covid restrictions in England.

In a letter on 13 April, the government efficiency minister urged secretaries of state to “accelerate the return of civil servants to office buildings”, saying an average of 44% civil servants were working from their department’s offices on any given day.

This number must increase “to realise the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working and the wider benefits for the economy”, the letter, seen by the Daily Telegraph, read.

“To deliver this, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, and I, urge you to issue a clear message to civil servants in your department to ensure a rapid return to the office.”

The Department for Education has the lowest proportion of staff working from the office, at 25%, according to a table of figures attached to the letter showing average daily attendance in the first week of April. The Department for Work and Pensions, at 27%, and the Foreign Office, at 31%.

By contrast, 73% of Department for International Trade and 72% of Department for Health and Social Care civil servants were in the office.

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A Cabinet Office spokesperson declined to comment on the figures, which were labelled as being from Civil Service HR, saying they were not intended for publication.

Rees-Mogg said ministers must now “review any guidance within your departments that sets an expectation of the minimum number of days in the office per week”.

Departments have each issued guidance setting out how much time staff are expected to come into government buildings. Some have told officials to spend 40% of their time in the office – equivalent to two days a week.

It is common for departments not to have space for all of their employees to work in the office at once, and many had some hybrid working arrangements in place before the pandemic.

Unions have objected to Rees-Mogg’s comments, with FDA general secretary Dave Penman saying they demonstrated the minister was “less interested in productivity or delivery than in spending time counting civil servants in and out of buildings”.

Rees-Mogg said he would visit departments with lower rates of attendance to “ensure we are making efficient use of the central London estate”.

He noted that any changes to hybrid working must comply with legal obligations including equality and discrimination considerations and workers’ statutory rights to request flexible working arrangements.

A government spokeswoman said: “Ministers have been clear that departments should make maximum use of office space and progress is being monitored.”

‘Simply unacceptable’
Rees-Mogg is one of several high-profile MPs who have called for an end to working from home.

Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, said this weekend it was “time for the managers of the civil service to get a grip and do their jobs” by forcing staff to return to the office in greater numbers.

“It is simply unacceptable for so many of our public servants to continue sitting at home,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Daily Mail.

Brady said problems with the Foreign Office’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul last summer was proof of the damage working from home could do.

And he said hybrid working was to blame for lorry licence backlogs at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency – which had a mass Covid outbreak in 2020, leading to a strike over unsafe working conditions.

“Of course, not all jobs need to be done in the office – a trend that was developing even before Covid struck. But it is undeniable that for most people, working in the office – with all the interactions and contacts that brings – is far more efficient,” he wrote. “Working from your garden shed or spare room is simply harder. Productivity is reduced. Tasks take longer and work is often delivered when it suits the employee – not when the customer needs it.”

Sam Trendall

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