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Jacob Rees-Mogg has told of his “suspicions” that civil servants are only working a three-day week, as the Government went to war with Whitehall mandarins.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Rees-Mogg – the Cabinet minister in charge of government efficiency – accused civil servants of working from home on Mondays and Fridays because they “think that the working week is shorter than it really is”.
Mr Rees-Mogg said he would also examine Met Office weather reports over suggestions officials were staying at home on the sunniest days.
His broadside follows his frustration at the refusal of civil servants to return to offices full-time, months after the Government lifted all working from home guidance put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a further swipe at Whitehall, Mr Rees-Mogg backed the Prime Minister’s plans to cut 91,000 Civil Service jobs, out of 475,000, over the next three years. The proposal has put Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, on a collision course with trade unions.
The two largest Civil Service unions, representing 200,000 members, are threatening a national strike if the cuts go ahead. The Telegraph understands that posts created for the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as Test and Trace and Covid task forces, will be among the first to go.
The pandemic, as well as Brexit, led to an explosion of Civil Service jobs. Mr Johnson is now pushing for a reduction in numbers to 2016 levels, with a promised saving of as much as £3.5 billion a year. Downing Street hopes those savings can be spent on helping with the cost of living crunch, through tax cuts or extra spending.
Mr Rees-Mogg’s controversial comments will fuel a burgeoning row between officials and ministers over working practices and job cuts.
Mr Rees-Mogg told The Telegraph that one major government department said its office attendance would be improved if only “the popular days” were analysed.
He added: “Well, guess what – the popular working in the office days were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“I do worry that the desire to take off Monday and Friday is an indication that people think that the working week is shorter than the reality is. One can't help but be suspicious about the desire to work from home on Mondays and Fridays.”
He also suggested staff might be working from home when there were major sporting events or there was nice weather. He said that “we're going to have to compare notes with the Met Office” and that “we need to have the evidence on Lord's Test matches and all that”.
In the interview, Mr Rees-Mogg called on senior mandarins to set an example and ensure they were at work full-time. “Leadership is about showing people how things need to be done,” he said. “And leaders ought to be in their offices.”
But he also accused unions of blocking the return to offices, claiming: “The unions clearly want to keep everybody at home.”
Mr Johnson also waded into the controversy, telling the Daily Mail: “We need to get back into the habit of getting into the office. I believe people are more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas when they are surrounded by other people.
“My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee, and then you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you're doing.”
It comes as civil servants at London’s new City Hall have been told to spend as little as two days a week in the office, as it “improves productivity and wellbeing”.
The new building, the Crystal, has enough room for 215 desks - despite 408 members of staff working there. One team of 90 civil servants was told to apply for one of nine hot-desks if staff wanted to work from the office, according to a memo.
An analysis by The Telegraph suggested that the biggest percentage growth in Civil Service numbers occurred in the Cabinet Office, Mr Rees-Mogg’s own department. It has seen a fivefold rise in staff, from 2,000 to more than 10,000, in five years. Mr Rees-Mogg said the Cabinet Office had suffered from the “duplication” of people’s jobs.
On Friday, unions lined up to warn of industrial action over the planned job cuts. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “The Government complains about longer delays for passports and driving licences, at the same time as sacking the people who are working so hard to clear the backlog.
“Our members will not be the scapegoats for a failing government … taking national strike action is very much on the table.”
Mike Clancy, Prospect’s general secretary, said: “The Government must stop chasing headlines to distract from its failure to address the cost of living crisis facing workers in all sectors of the economy.
“We will be talking with our members about the campaign ahead to save their jobs and to protect the services the public rely on."
'Unsettling' news for civil servants
Senior civil servants also objected to learning about the cull from media reports.
Jim Harra, permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, said in a message circulated to staff that he was “sorry that you have learned this from the media, rather than from me or Civil Service leaders”.
Abi Tierney, director-general of the beleaguered Passport Office, said in a joint communique: “We’re conscious that the reporting comes on the back of recent media attacks on the Civil Service. These aren’t new, but are a bit more frequent at the moment. We want to remind you to try to switch off that noise if you can.”
In a message to Home Office civil servants, Matthew Rycroft, the department’s permanent secretary said that the news was “unsettling” for civil servants.
“There are few additional details at this stage but we certainly understand that this will be unsettling news for people across the department and the wider Civil Service, who are working with great professionalism and commitment on the most important and challenging issues of our time,” he said,
It comes after Mr Rycroft previously put himself at odds with the Goverment’s priorities for reforming the Civil Service.
Last month, he said that home-working had “precisely zero bearing” on the serious failings in the Passport Office.
The most senior official in the Home Office has also warned his boss, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, that the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda lacked “sufficient evidence” to demonstrate the scheme’s benefits.
Mr Rees-Mogg also suggested that arms-length bodies, such as quangos, could also be subjected to swingeing cuts.
Mr Johnson told Cabinet colleagues on Thursday that they had one month to come up with plans for slimming down their own departments.
A source told The Telegraph that any cuts will “take advantage of natural churn, which will drive down numbers voluntarily”.