Nadine Dorries has criticised Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister responsible for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, of foisting a “Dickensian” approach to working from home on the civil service.
Rees-Mogg, who has previously been called “the honourable member for the 18th century” has written to cabinet ministers urging them to coerce staff into a “rapid return to the office” and has been 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 cabinet last week showing that some government departments were using as little as 25% of office capacity in early April. Dorries’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was at 43%.
The culture secretary said Rees-Mogg’s letter to government departments brought to mind “images of burning tallow, rheumy eyes and Marley’s ghost” in reference to Charles Dickens’s 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?”
The Times reported that several other cabinet ministers had reservations about the plans to force civil servants back to the office, and that some permanent secretaries had also raised concerns.
Dorries and Rees-Mogg have previously disagreed about the need to return to places of work after 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 union, which represents senior civil servants, said Rees-Mogg’s approach would mean that “good people will leave and the civil service brand is trashed in a highly competitive employment market”.
He said: “It sends a signal that he simply does not understand how modern offices work. He doesn’t understand … what’s happening across the economy, not just in the public sector.”
Rees-Mogg used a Mail on Sunday article to say officials may lose the London weighting on their pay or see their jobs moved elsewhere if they were not at their desks.
“Those who are at their desks every day seem to be younger, hardworking and ambitious civil servants, often renting house-shares in London for whom the office provides the right environment for work.
“Meanwhile, others enjoy the fruits of their London weighting at home in the shires. As the minister responsible for government property, it is my job to ensure the government estate is run efficiently and commercially. Empty offices are a cost to the taxpayer.
“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.
Internal HR policies obtained by the Daily Mail said working remotely could not be used as a way to avoid paying for childcare or put in fewer hours, and that there would be penalties if people’s performance was found to be suffering.
Oliver Dowden, chairman of the Conservative party, defended Rees-Mogg’s approach in a Sky News interview.
He said: “As we learn to live with Covid, I think if we really want to serve the British people best, one of the things we need to do is have that collaboration, that kind of sharing ideas that comes from working in the office.
“So, Jacob’s efforts are driven by getting the very best value for taxpayers and I support him in doing that.”