Civil servants are being offered special “work from home contracts” on a new government campus in the north of England, despite Cabinet ministers urging people to get back to the office as the threat from the Covid pandemic eases.
Tory MPs said the new contracts, offering “hybrid working patterns”, risked undermining both efforts to get more officials to the North and attempts to encourage more civil servants to return to their desks in government buildings.
Senior Treasury staff and hundreds of civil servants are being relocated to a new Darlington Economic Campus as part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda.
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, spent his first day working in Darlington on October 5, telling a local newspaper: “Our campus in Darlington is one of the ways we are delivering on our commitment to level up. Opening up job opportunities in the region will help us diversify the way we make policy and broaden our access to skills and talent.”
The Office for National Statistics is looking to hire staff on between £30,000 a year for new joiners to £50,000 a year for those with more experience at the campus, offering “very unique benefits, exclusive to our teams”.
These include “hybrid working patterns, split between office and home, flexi-time with the chance to take up to two extra days off each month [and] part-time, term-time, job-share and condensed hours”.
A job advert urges candidates who want to work at the campus to “think beyond your current benefits” and adds: “From in the office to out in the field, everyone here is part of a big, diverse family. That means everyone enjoys the same level of support with their development and the same high standard of rewards.
“Your well-being, progress and happiness are incredibly important to us. So on top of the key perks we share with other government departments, you can look forward to some very unique benefits, exclusive to our teams.”
However, Tory MPs criticised the new contracts, saying they risked undermining both the back-to-work effort and attempts to encourage civil servants to relocate from the south of England to the North.
William Wragg, the chairman of the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs select committee, which oversees the Civil Service, said the contracts were a “thin end of the wedge that might mean we never get back to normal”.
He added: “These kinds of contracts would fundamentally undermine the point of moving parts of government to different parts of the country, which is our agenda and therefore are incompatible with that.”
Contracts ‘will turn new office into ghost campus’
Another Conservative MP, who declined to be named, warned that the contracts risked turning the new Treasury outpost into a “ghost campus”.
He said: “It is absolutely clear that the Government has completely lost control of the Civil Service. This is no more obvious than on the one hand ministers demanding that civil servants stop working from home and on the other the Government seeking to create a new legal right to work from home culture on its northern campus.
“Is this designed so officials can ‘ghost’ their northern campus? Is it so that people who currently work from London can notionally be deployed there? This is a veneer of ‘working from Darlington’.”
Ministers were frustrated last month when Sarah Healey, the permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hailed the benefits of working from home and said: “I have a Peloton and I can just get on my bike whenever I have a teeny bit of time.”
That prompted Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservatives, to tell activists at the party conference: “People really want the Government to lead by example, and they want civil servants to get back to work as well. People need to get off their Pelotons and get back to their desks.”
A Government spokesman said: “Since the pandemic began, civil servants have been delivering the Government’s priorities from home and the workplace. Departments all follow government guidance, but as separate employers have the flexibility to make their own decisions on their individual working arrangements in order to meet their requirements.
“We are continuing to follow the latest government guidance and the Civil Service is gradually increasing the numbers of staff in the workplace. Permanent Secretaries have been taking forward the work to return civil servants to the workplace.”
A Whitehall source added that there was “no possibility of someone just working from home in London” because of the distance to the Darlington campus, where they would have to spend part of the week.
A spokesman for the Office for National Statistics said: “The ONS has a strong record of creating and recruiting highly-skilled analytical and technology jobs outside of London.
“As an inclusive employer, we offer flexible working where possible, but we are clear on the need to attend offices as work requires. This does not constitute contractual homeworking. We continue to follow civil service guidance on working arrangements.”