UK government plans to set civil service return-to-work deadlines

By on 12/10/2021 | Updated on 12/10/2021
Simon Case (left) is understood to have held a meeting with permanent secretaries, in which he requested staff be asked to return to offices as soon as possible. Photo by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

The UK Cabinet Office may impose deadlines for civil servants to return to Whitehall after months of tensions over remote working arrangements between ministers and unions.

The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, has told departments to order as many civil servants as is safely possible back to offices. Now, ministers are understood to be considering setting targets to end working from home, according to The Times. An announcement is expected later this week.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, said that forcing civil servants back into offices would be logistically unworkable, as desk numbers had already been reduced before the pandemic to cut costs. He said offices are simply underequipped for the return of so many government workers.

“Even pre-pandemic, around 40% of the jobs relocated out of London were expected to be home based and most are advertised as having hybrid working arrangements,” Penman said.

“Civil servants are furious at the hypocrisy of the continued attacks on home working from anonymous ministers, who know full well that hybrid working arrangements are critical to delivering the government’s own Places for Growth strategy, a key plank of the levelling up agenda.”

A war of words

The dispute over whether and when Whitehall staff should be expected to return to the workplace has led some ministers to make increasingly serious accusations of negligence.

Senior cabinet ministers recently suggested officials working from home had put British citizens fleeing Afghanistan in danger by not having timely access to vital office records. This, they argued, may have undermined the UK’s rescue mission.

At the Conservative party conference in Manchester last week, Conservative party co-chairman Oliver Dowden said that “people need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”, adding that civil servants have a responsibility to “lead by example”. Former Tory minister, Jake Berry, meanwhile, accused civil servants of “woke-ing from home” rather than attending to their core duties.

“We need to dispel the myth that this is a binary choice between home working and office working. Hybrid working is the way the professional services economy is moving, and ministers shouldn’t stand in the way of progress,” Penman tweeted.

He added that officials were being attacked by ministers who are choosing to ignore civil servants’ commitment to their work, as well as the benefits remote working has brought both government and taxpayers.

“Ministers should be celebrating the civil service leading on flexible working, which is making the most of new technology whilst making savings for the taxpayer and supporting a central government policy. Instead, they’re destroying their staff’s morale for cheap headlines that appear designed solely to play well with certain demographics in the electorate,” Penman said.  

This isn’t the first time the government has attempted to get civil servants to return to the workplace. In September 2020, it said it expected 80% of the civil service workforce to be attending offices at least once a week by the end of that month, but it had to row back after cases of COVID-19 increased significantly.   

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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