Nadine Dorries has criticized Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister responsible for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, for calling for a “Dickensian” approach to working from home in the civil service.
Rees-Mogg, formerly known as the “Honorable Member of the 18th Century”, has written to cabinet ministers urging them to force staff to a “quick return to office”, leaving notes in empty Whitehall workspaces with the message: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
Rees-Mogg presented figures to the Cabinet last week showing that some government departments spent as little as 25% of office capacity in early April. Dorrie’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was at 43%.
The Secretary of Culture said Rees-Mogg’s letter to government departments brought to mind “images of burning sebum, rheumatic eyes and Marley’s ghost” referring to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
She said, “There’s a hint of something Dickensian about it. Why do we measure bodies behind desks? Why don’t we measure productivity?”
The Times reported that several other ministers had reservations about plans to force officials back into office, and that some permanent secretaries had also expressed concern.
Dorries and Rees-Mogg have previously disagreed on the need to return to work following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions. But a government source told the PA news agency that the dispute between the two was “good-natured”.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, which represents senior officials, said Rees-Mogg’s approach would mean “good people will leave and the bureaucracy’s brand will be smashed in a highly competitive labor market”.
He said: “It sends a signal that he simply does not understand how modern offices work. He does not understand … what is happening across the economy, not just in the public sector.”
Rees-Mogg used a Mail on Sunday article to say that officials could lose the London weight on their salaries or see their jobs moved elsewhere if they were not at their desks.
“Those who sit at their desks every day seem to be younger, hard-working and ambitious officials, who often rent housing units in London, for whom the office provides the right working environment.
“Meanwhile, others are enjoying the fruits of their London weighting at home in shires. As Minister of State Property, it is my job to ensure that state property is operated efficiently and commercially. Empty offices are a cost to taxpayers.
“Basically, if people are not back in their office, it would be reasonable to assume that the job does not have to be in London,” he said.
Internal HR policies obtained by the Daily Mail said that teleworking could not be used as a way to avoid paying for childcare or spending fewer hours and that there would be sanctions if people’s performance was found to suffer.
Oliver Dowden, chairman of the Conservative Party, defended Rees-Mogg’s approach in a Sky News interview.
He said: “When we learn to live with Covid, I think if we really want to serve the British people best, one of the things we have to do is have that collaboration, that kind of sharing of ideas, coming from working in the office.
“So Jacob’s efforts are driven by getting the best value for taxpayers, and I support him in doing so.”