Culture secretary Nadine Dorries has accused Jacob Rees-Mogg of pushing a “Dickensian” approach to office working, saying work patterns should be driven by productivity and not presenteeism.
Her comments come after Rees-Mogg wrote to cabinet ministers, calling for them to get staff to "rapidly return" to their offices, and left notes on empty work desks on a visit to government buildings last week which said: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
Nadine Dorries reportedly told the government efficiency minister his letter to departments brought to mind “images of burning tallow, rheumy eyes and Marley’s ghost” – a reference to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
“There’s a whiff of something Dickensian about it. Why are we measuring bodies behind desks? Why aren’t we measuring productivity?” Dorries added, according to The Times.
Security staff have reportedly been asked to use clickers to count civil servants entering government buildings.
Several other cabinet ministers, as well as some permanent secretaries, have also reportedly raised concerns about Rees-Mogg's war against home working.
Tech minister Chris Philp, who works under Dorries in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, also defended civil servants working from home, telling Times Radio “some measure of balance is important”.
“People do value flexible working and it makes sense in a whole number of different contexts,” he added.
As well as writing to secretaries of state, Rees-Mogg also recently presented a league table of government departments’ office attendance at a cabinet meeting and suggested in a comment piece in the Mail on Sunday that civil servants could lose their London weighting allowance if they do not return to the office.
Accusing some officials of “enjoying the fruits of London weighting at home in the shires”, Rees-Mogg said if people are not back in their office “it will be fair to assume that the job does not need to be in London”.
Rees-Mogg said his approach is aimed at ensuring the government estate is “run efficiently and commercially” as part of his ministerial responsibility for government property.
“Empty offices are a cost to the taxpayer,” he said.
“We need to reform government with a smaller, high-performing and correctly incentivised civil service, where talented officials thrive. To do that, we need to get back to the office.”
As well as making repeated calls for civil servants to return to offices in pre-pandemic numbers, Rees-Mogg has also recently made several pledges to dramatically shrink the civil service, saying he wants to get rid of at least 65,000 civil service jobs.
Unions have consistently pushed back against criticism of civil servants who are working from home some or all of the time, and have accused ministers of using them as a target to score political points.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman warned that Rees-Mogg’s comments will “only deter good people from joining [the civil service] while simultaneously demotivating those already there”.
Penman said “there is no rationale” to the approach, as “ministers can’t point to productivity losses” linked to increased hybrid working in the civil service.
"Jacob Rees-Mogg is showing he simply does not understand how modern offices work", he added.
Labour shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves also hit out at Rees-Mogg, telling LBC: "This sort of bullying behaviour from the Brexit minister, that says people have to be at their desks for every day of the week and for every hour, is very old-fashioned."
But the back-to-office drive has got support from Oliver Dowden, chairman of the Conservative Party, who told Sky News: “Jacob’s efforts are driven by getting the very best value for taxpayers and I support him in doing that.”