Boris Johnson’s spokesman backed the ‘efficiency’ minister’s crackdown on WFH civil servants despite a Tory row – and didn’t rule out offloading Whitehall offices that don’t fill up
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Boris Johnson has backed Jacob Rees-Mogg in a Tory row over the toff’s ‘Dickensian’ back-to-work crackdown – and failed to rule out offloading Whitehall offices that don’t fill up.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said he “supports any initiative” to get civil servants back to working in-person after Covid.
Tory multimillionaire Mr Rees-Mogg – who lives a five minute walk from Parliament – personally left notes on empty desks saying: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
Ex-MP Anna Turley branded the notes “passive-aggressive snidey cr**” – and they were reportedly branded ‘Dickensian’ by fellow Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries.
According to The Times, Ms Dorries told Mr Rees-Mogg his letter brought to mind “images of burning tallow, rheumy eyes and Marley’s ghost” – a reference to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
She said: “There’s a whiff of something Dickensian about it. Why are we measuring bodies behind desks? Why aren’t we measuring productivity?”
But No10 refused condemn Mr Rees-Mogg’s notes – and did not rule out the prospect of selling off or merging Whitehall offices if civil servants do not return in person.
Boris Johnson ’s spokesman said: “We think there is a benefit to having people in. Obviously we wouldn’t want to sell off offices because then you would lose that benefit”.
But he added: ”Obviously we’ll keep that under review – and a number of departments have been merged into each other.”
The crackdown on civil servants comes despite the government promising last Autumn to expand the right to request flexible working – which includes working from home.
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said it was “sort of bullying behaviour… that says that people have got to be at their desks every day of the week and for every hour.”
She told LBC Radio: “It’s very old fashioned. People work much more flexibly these days…”
Asked if Mr Rees-Mogg – once pictured lying horizontally on the Commons benches – was bullying civil servants, the PM’s spokesman replied: “I don’t recognise that.”
Mr Rees-Mogg has written to Cabinet ministers calling on them to issue a clear message to staff about a “rapid return to the office” after publishing league tables of the ‘worst’ performing departments.
The minister – once photographed lying horizontally on the Commons benches – presented figures to Cabinet last week showing that some government departments were using as little as 25% of office capacity in early April.
The figure for Ms Dorries’ Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was 43%.
The two ministers have long disagreed about the need to return to places of work following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
But the dispute between the two was “good natured”, one Government source told the PA news agency.
Mr Rees-Mogg used a Mail on Sunday article to warn that officials may lose the London weighting on their pay or see their jobs moved elsewhere if they were not at their desks.
“Essentially, if people are not back in their office it will be fair to assume that the job does not need to be in London,” he said.
Unions have objected to Mr Rees-Mogg’s approach, with warnings his stance is damaging civil service morale.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union which represents senior civil servants, warned that “good people will leave and the civil service brand is trashed in a highly competitive employment market”.
Yet Downing Street said Mr Johnson supported Mr Rees-Mogg’s efforts.
“What the minister is seeking to achieve is to do everything possible to get the civil service to return to the pre-pandemic level,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“That is what he is seeking to do. That is supported by the Cabinet Secretary and obviously the Prime Minister.”
Asked if the notes left on desks by Mr Rees-Mogg were helpful, the spokesman said Mr Johnson “supports any initiative that encourages people to return to pre-pandemic working”.
“We are not talking about putting an end to flexible working, which continues to have a place in the modern workplace, we are talking about returning to pre-pandemic use of taxpayer-funded departmental buildings.”