Rees-Mogg implies civil servants STILL working from home could receive lower pay or have jobs axed

Rees-Mogg implies civil servants STILL working from home could receive lower pay or have jobs axed

It comes as Mr Rees-Mogg, the Brexit Opportunities Minister who also has Government Efficiency as part of his brief, has started to visit Whitehall offices to assess the occupancy levels – and cancelling the leases if they are largely empty.

Downing Street is determined to drag Britain out of its post-Covid economic malaise by forcing commuters out of their home offices and back into city centres, with the Civil Service leading by example.

Not a good time to renew a passport
Two years on from the start of the Covid pandemic and many Government departments are still not back to half their capacity – yet drivers, travellers and hard-pressed workers are still complaining of swingeing delays to usual service.

Several key departments, including the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), are doing ‘hybrid’ working that sees staff and executives work for up to three days a week at home.

The DVLA has repeatedly insisted the new WFH culture has not affected services, but reports have emerged of some motorists waiting months for their licences to come through.

Holidaymakers are also being urged not to delay if they need to renew their passport this summer. Despite multiple pressures on the Home Office, including migrant crossings and processing visas for Ukrainian refugees, on average only 42 per cent of staff were at their workplace in the first week in April.

In an article for this newspaper, Mr Rees-Mogg says ‘parts of the public sector seems to act as if it is still in lockdown’, with ‘vast central London offices sitting empty’ and ‘the Civil Service… as large as it has been for many years’.

He adds: ‘This is a bad deal for taxpayers as expensive property which could be given up… lies empty; and a London weighting is paid to people who are not working in London and are claiming they do not need to be in London.

‘Instead of being able to pop into someone’s office for a quick word, it has added an extra layer of bureaucracy. Every interaction has to be “diarised”, internet connections repaired and callers taken off mute. The informal chat has all but disappeared’.

Mr Rees-Mogg said: ‘The Government is committed to reducing the number of civil servants but there are 91,000 more than in 2015-16. This necessarily means a smaller but better-used Government estate in the heart of Whitehall.

‘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.’

Yesterday it was revealed that Mr Rees-Mogg has been leaving notes on empty desks in Whitehall, complete with an official Government crest, saying: ‘Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.’

Dave Penman, the head of the civil servants’ union the First Division Association, criticised the messages as part of a ‘culture war’, saying: ‘These notes from JRM are not only condescending, crass and insulting, they completely undermine the leadership of the service’.

Last week, Mr Rees-Mogg published a league table of Government departments based on how many staff were present and wrote to all Secretaries of State to say they must send a ‘clear message to civil servants in your department to ensure a rapid return to the office’.

He says that even within the Cabinet Office, ‘the disparity is stark’, with some teams boasting ‘an attendance rate of 180 per cent of staff compared to desks, while others are at 6 per cent’.

Mr Rees-Mogg has already taken action to tackle the ‘wastefulness of Whitehall WFH’.

Mr Rees-Mogg has already taken action to tackle the ‘wastefulness of Whitehall WFH’

The Mail on Sunday understands that during a recent meeting in the Cabinet Office, Mr Rees-Mogg was informed that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had said the lease on its headquarters on Trafalgar Square was due to end in days, and its investigators were about to become homeless.

Mr Rees-Mogg suggested walking to the SFO offices, and after touring the almost empty rooms, he refused to renew the lease.

His snap visits are not popular with civil servants. Many officials, if they hear he is about to visit, are said to hide from him to avoid a confrontation over working rotas. With the Covid pandemic finally abating, the Government is keen to revitalise the businesses hit hardest by working from home, such as train companies. Passenger numbers have nearly halved compared to pre-pandemic levels, leaving a black hole in revenues which could lead to cuts in services.

In his MoS article, Mr Rees-Mogg highlights the problems caused with issues such as replacement passports and driving licences caused by home-working, which he describes as ‘people using the cover of working from home to refuse to do their taxpayer-funded jobs’.

This newspaper revealed last year that the number of Foreign Office staff working from home had contributed to the difficulties experienced in the evacuation of British citizens from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a Minister in a department where more than half of desks are empty called for the Government to sell some of its valuable Whitehall office space to free up money for the Budget.

‘This is an opportunity to offload some Westminster real estate and make money,’ the Minister said.

Critics say the Government should tell civil servants to either come in or find other jobs because Whitehall’s WFH culture is stifling policy-making.

Former Tory party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘If the Minister isn’t capable of directing their department, I question whether the Minister should be there themselves. Ideas bounce off conversations around the water cooler. That is why people should be back in the office.’

JACOB REES-MOGG: The only place to fine-tune Whitehall’s Rolls-Royce is in the office

By Jacob Rees-Mogg MP for the Mail on Sunday

After a tip-off from a fellow Minister, I visited an office in Whitehall whose officials report to my department. In a room which could fit several dozen people, not a soul could be found. Instead the scene was Westminster’s answer to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid from danger and remained asleep for 200 years. Yellowed bulletins dated March 2020 were curling on noticeboards and it seemed like the only people who had been in the room since then were the ever-diligent cleaners.

The cleaners are a reminder that some people worked exceptionally hard during the pandemic, many in the office but also at home. The cleaners and security staff never stopped and the success of HMRC delivering the furlough scheme, those who worked on the vaccine, and the unsung heroes at DWP ensuring that Universal Credit worked are proof the Civil Service can still be a Rolls-Royce.

While the private sector seems to have come to a reasonable equilibrium on home working, parts of the public sector seem to act as if they are still in lockdown. Not only are vast central London offices sitting empty, the Civil Service is as large as it has been for many years. Mail on Sunday readers have every right to wonder if the public is being best served by this arrangement.

Jacob Rees-Mogg left these notices on the empty desks of civil servants in Whitehall

Jacob Rees-Mogg left these notices on the empty desks of civil servants in Whitehall

This is not to deny the value of hybrid working. It is intended to be part of the system. This is why the figures are worse than they first appear because they relate to desk space, not civil servants at work.

As departments generally have 70 to 80 per cent of desks to employees, 50 per cent desk space usage is only 35 to 40 per cent attendance. This is a bad deal for taxpayers as expensive property which could be given up, much of it leasehold, lies empty; and a London weighting is paid to people who are not working in London and are claiming they do not need to be in London.

When the national lockdown was announced in March 2020, my immediate challenge was to find a way of keeping Parliament running, come what may. It was a constitutional and democratic necessity. This meant embracing hybrid and virtual working. Parliament continued, albeit over Zoom, thanks to the immense efforts of the Speaker and dozens of officials in the House of Commons and Cabinet Office.

Mandarins told: Use your office or lose it
Jacob Rees-Mogg put his words into swift action during a meeting in his Whitehall office this month.

During the meeting, the Minister was told that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) – the Government department which investigates and prosecutes complex corruption cases – was within days of being ‘homeless’, because the lease on its offices in the Canadian High Commission had expired. ‘Lets take a look at them,’ said Mr Rees-Mogg, heading out of the office and turning left for the short walk to the building on Trafalgar Square. Inside, he was greeted with rows of deserted desks, some of which did not appear to have been occupied for more than two years – since before the start of the pandemic.

‘There is no need for such expensive offices if no-one is here,’ he said, ruling that the lease should not be renewed.

A Government source said: ‘You can expect more decisions like this. Use it or lose it.’

While it was right for its time to do this, much of what makes Parliament work was lost and the hybrid Parliament had a ghostly feel. Parliament was not functioning as it should. MPs from all parties were isolated and the progress of our legislative agenda – upon which our 80-seat majority was built – was at a snail’s pace.

This is exactly why we were determined to return Parliament to normal, often ahead of the country as a whole, to ensure it functioned for the people of the United Kingdom again.

What caused problems with the hybrid Parliament last year causes problems in the hybrid Whitehall today. The inability for backbench MPs to speak to ministers, whether in the tea room, a voting lobby, or just along the corridor, is mirrored in Government departments. In a building as empty as the Mary Celeste, working patterns are upended. With a pressing deadline, or – as is often the way in Government – an all-enveloping emergency, the inability to speak to people face to face urgently is terrible. For all the technological solutions in the world, one can still simply ignore a phone call or forget to reply to an email.

Is it efficient? The world of working from home was touted as a way of making work more flexible and in tune with people’s lives. In some respects, it has had the opposite effect. Instead of being able to pop into someone’s office for a quick word, it has added an extra layer of bureaucracy. Every interaction has to be ‘diarised’, internet connections repaired and callers taken off mute. The informal chat has all but disappeared.

It would be naive to suggest there are no abuses from widespread home working in the public sector. The Times’ eye-opening investigations into the dishonesty at the DVLA was essential journalism.

A public service, on which so many Mail on Sunday readers depend – to drive to work or take their children to school – was stymied by people using the cover of working from home to refuse to do their taxpayer-funded jobs.

The backlog of driving licence approvals remains unresolved. I am still pleading with the DVLA for my constituents’ licences. With inflation high and supply chains under strain, this has an obvious economic cost.

I am determined that this Government grows the economy and reduces costs to British families, so we simply cannot carry the heavy burden of waste and inefficiency in the State.

As things stand we have an awkward balance. Some offices are busy, others are empty. In the Cabinet Office itself, the disparity is stark: some teams boast an attendance rate of 180 per cent of staff compared to desks, while others are at 6 per cent. This is dispiriting for those coming in, bearing the cost of commuting, while noticing the absence of their confreres.

Those who are at their desks every day seem to be younger, hard-working 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.

The Government is committed to reducing the number of civil servants but there are 91,000 more than in 2015-16.

This necessarily means a smaller but better-used Government estate in the heart of Whitehall.

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.

This is clearly a financial opportunity of working from home, which many businesses have taken, by downsizing their offices. This, perhaps, is the trade-off.

The British people rightly have high expectations of the State. We need to reform Government with a smaller, high-performing and correctly incentivised Civil Service, where talented officials thrive. In order to do that, we need to get back to the office.

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