In-office work should be 'default' for civil servants, Cabinet Office minister says

Jeremy Quin says office work means "we get more out of employees" than when they are working from home
Photo: Bridget Catterall/AlamyLiveNews

In-office working should be the “default” for civil servants, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin has said.

Questioned on civil servants’ office attendance in recent months, Quin said there is no “doctrinaire” policy on working from government offices.

During topical Cabinet Office questions in the House of Commons yesterday, the minister said: “There are occasions when that is the right approach, but the default position should be working together in the office space.

“We believe that means we get more out of employees, there is better productivity and it is a better experience for those working together in that team environment.”

Quin was responding to a question from Conservative MP Michael Fabricant, who argued that while “working with other people in an office is constructive from a teamwork and creative point of view, working from home has advantages, including saving travel time and, on occasion, enabling people to concentrate more on the job”.

“Will my right hon. and hon. Friends not take too prescriptive a view of working from home, and encourage TWATism?

“A TWAT, Mr Speaker, is somebody who works in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays,” he said – prompting House of Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle to quip: “Thank goodness that was clarified.”

Fabricant said he wanted to offer a “contrary view” to his Conservative backbench colleague Greg Smith, who had asked what Quin was doing “to ensure that more civil servants get to their desks”.

Smith had quoted recently published civil service headquarters occupancy data for June, which he said showed a “pleasing trend” of more civil servants working from government buildings. He noted that attendance was still lower than 50% of full occupancy in some departments, including HM Revenue and Customs.

Quin responded: “We are encouraging people to go back. That is an ongoing trend, and my hon. Friend is right about what he alludes to in the numbers.

“There are benefits in civil servants working together, as there are for those in other areas of the economy, in terms of innovation, teamwork and being able to bring on new members of a team. I welcome the fact that people are returning to the office and that they are working collaboratively in government buildings across the country.”

Despite setting out office working as the “default”, the tone of Quin’s comments was more conciliatory than previous ministerial statements on civil service working arrangements.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was government efficiency minister from February to September last year, repeatedly urged civil servants to work from the office rather than remotely, at one point famously leaving notes on empty desks that read: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”

Boris Johnson, who was prime minister at the time, meanwhile said working from home "doesn't work", telling the Daily Mail: “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.”

Briefing against civil servants 'not what we do'

During yesterday's questions, Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi pressed Quin on what he called the "continuous briefing against our civil servants by ministers and Conservative MPs" , which he said "is having a disastrous impact on morale in our civil service".

The last few years have brought negative briefings against officials from both named and anonymous ministers and frontbenchers in the press on topics ranging from remote working to a supposed reticence to follow ministers' directions on Brexit, immigration policy and other areas.

As well as accusations that the so-called "blob" is undermining government policy, critics have also recently suggested that civil servants have submitted vexatious or politically motivated complaints against ministers – such as those that led to Dominic Raab's resignation as justice secretary.

Dhesi asked: "Do the government not realise that damaging morale in our civil service hinders us in conducting government business and retaining that expertise in-house, and makes us ever more reliant on expensive external consultants?"

Quin said he "totally refute[d]" the contention that ministers were briefing against civil servants.

"That is not the experience of this ministerial team. That is not what we do," he said.

"I very much value the work of our civil servants. I make that clear to their union representatives and to civil servants themselves. They do a very valuable job for our country and they will always have the support of this government in attempting to do their utmost, as they do, to support and benefit the prosperity of the whole country."

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