Jacob Rees-Mogg orders ‘rapid return’ to the office for civil servants

Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has reportedly written to all secretaries of state, saying they must send a 'clear message' to civil servants to bring about a 'rapid return' to face-to-face work. Credit: Pexels

Civil servants must stop working from home and will be ordered back to their desks to ensure taxpayer-funded offices are at "full capacity", reports say.

Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has written to all secretaries of state, saying they must send a “clear message” to civil servants to bring about a “rapid return” to face-to-face work, The Telegraph reported.

Up to three quarters of staff are still working from home, the newspaper said, with officials who refuse to return to the office accused by Whitehall sources of failing to “pull their weight”.

Mr Rees-Mogg also sent ministers a league table showing how many staff in each government department were attending the office on an average day in the week starting April 4, it said.

In his letter, Mr Rees-Mogg reportedly wrote: “Now that we are learning to live with Covid and have lifted all legal restrictions in England, we must continue to accelerate the return of civil servants to office buildings to realise the benefits of face-to-face, collaborative working and the wider benefits for the economy.

“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.

“[This] is subject to existing legal obligations, including but not limited to, equality and discrimination considerations and statutory rights to request flexible working arrangements.”

The Times reported that a Whitehall audit revealed roughly 80% of government departments were operating with less than half of all desks in use, while 36% were running at two thirds of normal levels.

Prior to the Covid crisis, average staff occupancy across the estate stood at around 80%, it said.

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The Telegraph cited a Whitehall source as saying “a silent majority” of officials “aren’t pulling their weight”.

“British people have very high standards of government, not just ministers but people working on their behalf,” they reportedly said.

“The whole of the country is getting back to normal, this feels out of step with the rest of the country – who, after all, pay for the existence of the civil service – who have been back in their office working [hard] for quite a while now.

They added: "It feels that in some cases it is a minority of really hard-working officials who are in the office all the time, and a silent majority of people aren’t pulling their weight".

The source went on to say the pandemic should not be "an excuse for a new normal".

Mr Rees-Mogg's push to get officials back behind their Whitehall desks has also been supported by Boris Johnson.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Clearly the Prime Minister feels that it is important that we make best use of taxpayer-funded departments which are not returning, currently, to the levels we saw before the pandemic.

“This is not simply just about value-for-money for taxpayer-funded buildings, but also it’s a benefit to the staff – particularly junior staff who benefit from face-to-face working – and obviously we know there are benefits that can help, therefore, delivery for the public as well.

“So, it’s right that we continue to push for a return to pre-pandemic levels.”

The spokesman acknowledged there was not enough desk space for all civil servants to be in the office permanently, but added they did want "to see the buildings being used at full occupancy".

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, was quoted in The Times as claiming Mr Rees-Mogg is less interested in “productivity or delivery” than spending time “counting civil servants in and out of buildings”.

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