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Jacob Rees-Mogg’s drive to get civil servants back at their desks has been backed by No 10 despite Cabinet-level opposition to his tactics.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries accused Mr Rees-Mogg, the minister responsible for government efficiency, of a “Dickensian” approach to the issue.
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” and has been leaving notes in empty Whitehall workspaces with the message: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
Downing Street said Boris 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.”
But The Guardian later reported that the country’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, had in fact privately warned Mr Johnson against forcing officials back to the office.
The newspaper said at least four permanent secretaries were also understood to have voiced concerns about the Government’s rhetoric on the matter.
Asked if the notes left on desks by Mr Rees-Mogg were helpful, the PM’s 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.”
The Times reported that Ms Dorries’ response was highly critical of Mr Rees-Mogg’s approach.
Mr 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 – the figure for Ms Dorries’ Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was 43%.
Ms Dorries told him his letter to Government departments brought to mind “images of burning tallow, rheumy eyes and Marley’s ghost” – a reference to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The Times reported 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 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 would not comment on the row, citing Cabinet confidentiality rules.
He told PA: “If it’s leaks from Cabinet, I’ll comment under the 30-year rule when we’re all a little bit older.”
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”.
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.
Responding to the reports in The Guardian, a Government spokesperson said: “We want to see office attendance across the civil service consistently back at normal, pre-pandemic levels.
“There is total agreement across Government on there being clear benefits from face-to-face, collaborative working and we know that this is particularly important for the learning and development of new members of staff.
“The minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency has written to departments to underline the importance of workplace attendance and request that they review their existing guidance on the minimum number of days staff work in the office.”