Civil Service Chief warns Prime Minister against forcing Whitehall workers back into office | Civil service

Britain’s top official has privately warned Boris Johnson against forcing government employees back into office amid growing anger in Whitehall over “scare tactics”, the Guardian has learned.

Alongside Simon Case, at least four permanent secretaries – the senior officials in their department – are also believed to have raised alarm over government rhetoric designed to reverse the shift to work from home during the Covid pandemic.

Stick checks on office work by Jacob Rees-Mogg, including “sorry you were out when I visited” banknotes left on empty Whitehall desks, have seen the cabinet minister stamped “milk monitor” by disgruntled officials.

Case told the Prime Minister over the weekend that Rees-Mogg’s strategy was unwise and that the language against officials went too far. A No. 10 source said Case was fully on track with a return to more face-to-face work.

On Monday, No. 10 supported Rees-Mogg’s approach amid a dispute with Nadine Dorries over the office’s workflow, which the Secretary of Culture had called “Dickensian”.

Jacob Rees-Moggs note to officials.
Jacob Rees-Moggs note to officials. Photo: @ dinosofos / Twitter

Rees-Mogg had written to cabinet ministers urging them to force staff to a “quick return to office” and has left notes for absent officials with the message: “I look forward to seeing you in office very soon.”

Among the rooms where he left business cards was the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, which caused particular unrest in Whitehall because staff were under intense pressure in the unit where they work with sensitive material.

A government source said Rees-Mogg often had to move through other departments to get to his office on 100 Parliament Street, adding: “He is completely focused on parts of the government under his control, not other ministers’ areas.”

The minister, who is in charge of government efficiency, presented figures to the cabinet last week showing that some government departments spent 25% of office capacity in early April. Dorries’ Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was at 43%.

Rees-Mogg is believed to have walked around several government offices, including DCMS. During a visit to the Treasury Department, The Guardian was told he was commenting to an official that “you are the first person I have seen work on this floor today”.

He also visited the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and was not impressed with the amount of empty desks, so he sent senior officials a letter asking when they would close the office due to its apparent lack of use, sources said.

But The Guardian understands that the “threat” of not renewing the lease has been abandoned. It was mocked as a “scare tactic” to force teams across government property to justify the use of their space. A government source said: “The SFO has had a short-term postponement and had their long-term requests for renewal rejected by two separate ministers.”

Several permanent secretaries have also privately expressed frustrations over Rees-Mogg’s “stunt.” An official working in one of Whitehall’s largest departments said their communications director had advised: “ignore him”.

Another Whitehall source said officials had promoted flexible work with the expectation of spending one to two days a week in the office. On Monday, more than 1,600 positions with flexible working arrangements were posted on the civil servant job site.

The unrest over Rees-Mogg’s strategy also extends to ministers. One said, “I’m on team Nadine [Dorries] on this. Who dreams of this shit? If the civil service is not working properly, you need to reform them. Do not walk around and place the physical answer to eye rollers on their desks. ”

Another Whitehall official said the push created a sense of injustice and warned that combined with a pay cut would affect staff retention, leading to “the worst brain drain I have ever seen”, with talented younger employees seeking to leave.

They also pointed to the treatment of younger staff in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office over the Partygate scandal, where officials have received or expect to receive fines for attending events with the prime minister or senior executives.

Dave Penman, secretary general of the FDA, said: “I get a lot from members who say they’ve had enough and that they want to go. They will not be treated like that.

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“Ultimately, civil servants will find themselves in what happens to the cost of living and a wage increase that is significantly below inflation – but not this. It’s so demoralizing for civil servants because it’s actually not based on anything to do with their work. to do and the best way to provide public services. ”

A government spokesman said: “There is full agreement across the government that there are clear benefits to working face – to – face and we know this is particularly important for the learning and development of new and younger staff. Brexit opportunities and government efficiency have written to the departments to emphasize the importance of attendance at the workplace and request that they review their existing guidance on the minimum number of days staff work in the office. “

Asked if Johnson supports Rees-Mogg’s policy of leaving calling cards at vacant desks, the spokesman said: “What the minister is trying to achieve is to do everything possible to get the civil service to return to the pre-pandemic level … It is supported by the Cabinet Secretary and, of course, the Prime Minister. “

Referring to the notes left on desks, “Johnson supports any initiative that encourages people to return to pre-pandemic work,” the spokesman said. “We are not talking about putting an end to flexible work, which continues to have a place in the modern workplace, we are talking about returning to pre-pandemic use of taxpayer-funded department buildings.”

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