Civil servants are working from home to save on lunch costs, claims minister

Latest salvo comes despite No.10 confirming “steady return” of officials to workplaces
Photo: Alamy

By Richard Johnstone

13 Oct 2021

A minister has claimed that civil servants are continuing to work from home to save on the cost of lunch and train fares in the latest comment from senior figures that question how many officials have returned to their offices post-Covid.

In comments reported by the Evening Standard, an unnamed senior minister said that officials were reluctant to return to the office because “some just want to save their lunch and train fares”.

Separately, Nickie Aiken, the Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster – whose constituency covers the government offices in Whitehall – also told the paper that civil servants should follow the example being set by the private sector.

“There is a balance to be struck, but the civil service needs to lead from the front and I have been disappointed so few have come back,” she said. “I would encourage the civil service to do their bit for the economy and the country.

“The civil service needs to take a leaf out of the private sector’s book. Big organisations I speak to in the City see the advantage of being back in the office.”

This is the latest in number of comments made by senior ministers in recent months seeking to drive civil servants back to their offices, most recently by Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden, who demanded at last week’s Conservative party conference that officials “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.

An unnamed cabinet minister has also previously suggested that officials working from home have received a de facto pay rise by avoiding commuting costs, and Aiken also questioned whether civil servants no longer commuting  should continue to receive London weighting.

“If the taxpayer is paying extra money for someone working in central London and they are not working in London, then there needs to be a discussion about that,” she told the Standard.

However, the ongoing briefing comes as a No.10 spokesman said that there are no plans to set any targets for government departments to increase the number of staff in the workplace, adding: “As we asked for, and expected, we are seeing a steady return of civil servants to the office. That’s what we would expect, not just in the civil service but in the private sector as well and that will continue."

Departments are also developing their own plans for returns, with HMRC saying that more than 16,000 staff who had been working from home during the coronavirus pandemic had returned to offices by the end of September.

Civil service job advertisements are giving a flavour of what departments believe the post-pandemic “new normal” will look like. Applicants for recent Treasury roles have been told that most staff at the department should expect to be in their offices for two-to-three days a week, on average.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ads say it is “exploring future ways of working with flexibility in mind” and the option of combining working at home with a working at a Defra group workplace will be offered “subject to business need”. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government says flexible-working opportunities “will be discussed with the vacancy manager on a case-by-case basis” with successful applicants.

Responding to the latest comments, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: “Once again a brave, brave minister anonymously gives their insulting, inaccurate hypocritical opinion, solely designed to pander to their base. Inspiration leadership for all to see.”

 

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