Ministers have been warned not to use civil servants as pawns in a culture war after one cabinet member told the Daily Mail officials who work from home should have their pay slashed.
Unions and former civil servants hit back after a cabinet minister was quoted as saying working from home amounted to a “pay rise” – the same day as Tory grandee Sir Iain Duncan Smith urged officials to “get off their backsides”.
The “senior minister”, who was not named, told the Daily Mail that civil servants who work remotely “aren't paying their commuting costs so they have had a de facto pay rise, so that is unfair on those who are going into work”.
“If people aren't going into work, they don't deserve the terms and conditions they get if they are going into work,” they added.
Former Government Legal Department head Sir Jonathan Jones said if pay were to be cut, it "might mean more work for government lawyers, defending breach of contract and employment law cases".
"I can’t believe these divisive, ungrateful, tone-deaf comments will make life any easier for civil service managers who are sensitively trying to encourage colleagues to increase office-based working. An object lesson in how not to do it," he said.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, said briefing the press anonymously is “cowardly”, writing on Twitter: “Civil servants will be appalled by these quotes from a minister not brave enough to put their name to them.
“Whilst civil servants deliver key services in the most extraordinary of circumstances, some ministers appear more interested in creating a phoney war for cheap headlines."
Writing for CSW last week, Penman warned that civil servants were “starting to see a second summer wave of ministerial hints and totally-random-not-briefed-at-all stories about remote working”.
The PCS union meanwhile said that suggestions in the press that civil servants who work from home are lazy "flies in the face of the facts and that government ministers have themselves publicly recognised the extraordinary efforts civil servants and other public sector workers have made during the pandemic".
The union said the coronavirus pandemic has proven flexible working is "eminently achievable while maintaining service delivery" in government.
Speaking to the Daily Mail yesterday, Duncan Smith – a former work and pensions secretary and leader of the Conservative Party – said: “Civil servants need to get off their backsides and into the office and they need to do it pretty quickly.”
He said employers should no longer allow working from home to be the “default” option, adding: “Managers can't manage properly, companies aren't as effective, income goes down – go back to the office.”
Duncan Smith also said workers who are home based should not receive a London weighting on their wages. “If you're not travelling anywhere you don't carry any extra cost,” he said.
Meanwhile, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he wanted to see staff in his department coming into the office at least two or three days a week but rejected the suggestion that civil servants should lose out on pay if they work remotely.
“I would never suggest that. I don’t know who it was. I think people working from home are contributing hugely to the workforce," he told LBC radio.
“We don’t know when the Covid pandemic will end. We don’t know what the circumstances will be, but ideally I’d like most workers – all workers – in my department to be coming in two or three days a week,” he said.
“I think three days a week is fair. I’m just reluctant to say it has to be by September 1 or September 15. I think it needs to be done fairly soon [but] that we need to look at where we are with the pandemic before we can make that call.”
The comments came after the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said it would be “really beneficial” for young people in particular to work from office buildings, and cautioned against remote working being allowed to become the norm.
Following the latest ministerial interventions, Layla Moran, chair of the all party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said there had been “mixed messaging from the government at a time when the public and businesses need clarity”.
“Ministers shouldn’t be urging people back to the office at a time when cases remain high and against the government’s own workplace safety guidance,” she said.
A government spokesperson said: “The civil service continues to follow government guidance, as we gradually and cautiously increase the number of staff working in the office.
“Our approach, which builds on our learning during the pandemic, takes advantage of the benefits of both office and home-based working across the UK.”