The civil service’s biggest union has warned ministers to expect a wave of industrial action in response to any attempt to reduce the pay of departmental staff who opt not to return to their offices following the coronavirus pandemic.
PCS’s shot across the bows followed a proposal from an unnamed cabinet minister who said officials who continue working from home should earn less than counterparts in their normal workplaces.
The call was reported in the Daily Mail and followed stories about low return-to-work rates among civil servants last week, including at the Department for Education – where minister Gillian Keegan said only one-quarter of staff had returned to their desks.
Downing Street yesterday sought to distance itself from the unattributed comments about pay cuts for civil servants who continue working from home.
The BBC reported the prime minister’s spokesman saying there were "no plans for that approach”, and adding that departments would aim to increase office working gradually.
A PCS spokesperson said it was the “height of cowardice” for ministers to anonymously brief the media about docking civil servants' pay for not returning to the office.
“PCS is engaged in serious discussions with the Cabinet Office about how we can embrace the post pandemic world with hybrid working and keeping staff safe,” they said.
“Any attempt to dock pay for civil servants for any reason would be met with a swift industrial response, potentially including strike action.”
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the anonymous pay cut proposals suggested some ministers were “more interested in creating a phoney war for cheap headlines” while civil servants worked hard to deliver key services “in the most extraordinary of circumstances”.
Former Government Legal Department head Sir Jonathan Jones said the proposals were “ungrateful, tone-deaf comments” that were likely to make it harder for managers to encourage staff to increase office-based working.
Jones, who quit his job in September last year in protest at clauses proposed for the Internal Market Bill, added that any attempt to reduce pay for staff who continued to work remotely “might mean more work for government lawyers, defending breach of contract and employment law cases”.
In June the PCS and sister civil-service unions Prospect and the FDA told CSW that there appeared to be an understanding within the Cabinet Office that last autumn’s aborted rush to get 80% of staff back to their offices for at least part of the week should not be repeated.
However they also recognised that senior officials’ understanding of the need to capitalise on the positives of remote working were at risk of being overridden at the whim of ministers.
Over the weekend, the Guardian reported that the Department of Health and Social Care had ditched plans to require staff to return to the office for a minimum of four days a month from September.
It said an announcement to staff on Thursday accepted it was “clear that we cannot proceed with this phase on the planned timescale” but noted that the aim was to move to a model of office-based working for between four and eight days a month “in the coming months”.
The paper said the exact timing would depend on “further changes” in guidance on Covid-secure workspaces.