Environment secretary Michael Gove has claimed that some civil servants are stopping work on Wednesday afternoons if they have already worked 37 hours.
The comments were made in last week’s Cabinet meeting, according to the Sunday Times, where Gove also accused civil servants of blocking new policies.
In the comments, which came after Theresa May called for a greater focus on domestic policy alongside Brexit, Gove alleged that plans were being thwarted by civil servants.
A cabinet source told the paper: “Michael said they work their 37 hours a week and then they go home, even if that is Wednesday afternoon, while another source said: “Gove went on a rant… and said something along the lines of: ‘Do the civil service still work for 12 hours and get two days off?’ The PM wryly replied, ‘It’s called flexible working Michael, and we as a government support it.’”
The comments were criticised by the FDA trade union for senior civil servants, which highlighted that its annual working hours survey found that 91% of respondents work longer than they are contracted to work every week, including 41% working over six hours extra and 29% working at least nine additional hours.
Steven Littlewood, the union’s Defra national officer, highlighted that 95% of Defra staff responding to the survey said they work more than their contracted hours every week, and 90% said that excessive hours were a problem in the department.
Littlewood told CSW that he was today writing to Gove to confirm that he made the comments and if they reflect his views on civil servants' working arrangements, and asking him to meet the union to discuss what he called “unhelpful and inaccurate” comments.
“We are inviting the secretary of state to clarify and disavow the reported comments in the Sunday Times article, which paint a picture unrecognisable to hard-working civil servants in Defra,” he said. “FDA members routinely work well in excess of their contracted hours without any compensating payment or time off. In fact, many members are not even able to take all of their annual leave because of work pressures, let alone Wednesday afternoons off.”
“Defra not only provides essential services for the nation, it is also one of the government departments most impacted by Brexit and yet it relies on civil servants going above and beyond, working excessive unpaid hours to keep the show on the road.”
Littlewood highlighted there are hundreds of unfilled Brexit positions in the department, leaving work to be picked up by existing staff at a time of departmental spending cuts.
“All of this places a huge burden on FDA members, which will not be helped by the reports in the Sunday Times,” he added. “We are asking the secretary of state to reject the reported comments and work with us to tackle the problem of excessive hours and under-resourcing in the department.”
Gove’s comments are the latest in a series of statements criticising civil servants. In December, he criticised HMRC over tax demands to donors who supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
In an unusual statement released on Christmas Eve, the tax collection department said it “objectively applies tax laws passed by Parliament” and added: “Tax decisions are always based on the law and never on the personal beliefs or values of the individual or campaign.”
A source close to Gove said he was “obviously concerned about action that appears to impinge on our democratic values”.
The former education and justice secretary has also previously accused the Senior Civil Service of “blame-shifting and bottom-covering” who duck responsibility when a crisis occurs.