Jacob Rees-Mogg accused of 'blind ideology' after previously backing civil service flexible working

Union chief says minister's support of plan to reduce government estate shows "how poorly thought through his comments on hybrid working are"
Jacob Rees-Mogg arrives at the Cabinet Office. Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire

By John Johnston

18 May 2022

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been accused of chasing "cheap headlines" with his push for civil servants to return to the office, having previously supported flexible working as part of efforts to minimise the need for office space used by civil servants.

The minister for government efficiency had written in support of the 2018 Estate Strategy, which set out plans to reduce the size of the government estate to free up public land for housing, including by promoting "smarter working" and "working in ways that minimise our need for office space".

The strategy document stated that offering flexible working would lead to "improved productivity, better engagement and reduced estate costs" while providing "benefits to our people".

"It is about providing the working and workplace arrangements to help our people make intelligent choices about where and when they work, improving productivity, creating a better work-life balance and providing an environment equipped for rapid change," the strategy added.

A 2019 essay co-written by Rees-Mogg encouraged the government to "accelerate" the plans and appoint a senior cabinet minister "responsible for identifying and releasing public land for housing".

The comments prove a stark contrast to Rees-Mogg's recent efforts to push civil servants to return to the office, including leaving notes on empty desks in Whitehall saying "sorry you were out when I visited".

Rees-Mogg has written to his cabinet colleagues telling them to send a "clear message" to their departments about returning to the office.

But Dave Penman, head of the FDA union, said the contrast proved "just how poorly thought through his comments on hybrid working are".

"Flexible, hybrid working existed long before Covid-19, the pandemic simply accelerated the trend," he told CSW sister title PoliticsHome.

"Indeed, the government’s own estate strategy has been centred around this for years, recognising that greater flexible working can lead to huge savings for the taxpayer as less buildings and office space are needed to house staff." 

"The fact that a report co-authored by Jacob Rees-Mogg back in 2019 actually advocated selling off public land for housing shows just how poorly thought through his comments on hybrid working are."

Penman said it demonstrated the cabinet minister had "no idea how modern workplaces operate and is basing his decisions on blind ideology instead of reality".

"We’re not absolutist about this and nobody is saying all civil servants should work from home all of the time, despite what Rees-Mogg would have you believe. It’s high time the government drop the soundbites and cheap headlines and engage in a grown-up conversation about the future world of work."

Penman has previously criticised ministers who he has said are "hell-bent on micromanaging how many days individual civil servants sit in an office", writing for CSW: "A government serious about efficiency would be celebrating the innovative new working arrangements and exploiting the benefits of a smaller civil service estate for the taxpayer."

But a government source believed that mooted plans to cut the numbers of civil servants by about a fifth proved Rees-Mogg was still committed to reducing the overall size of the government estate.

"It's important to remember another plank of this is to reduce the overall size of the civil service as well, back down to 2016 numbers," they said.

"He has always been clear that the vast increase in civil servant numbers since 2016 – to address the temporary administrative demands of Brexit and then the pandemic – should be reduced."

But shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Hopkins said Rees-Mogg "can't have it both ways".

"On the one hand, he is chastising dedicated public servants for working from home while on the other using flexible working as a naked excuse to start a race to the bottom," she said. 

"After leaving creepy notes at the desk of civil servants, he is now threatening them with draconian fire-and-rehire tactics. 

"This irresponsible, back of-a-postage-stamp scheme would take a wrecking ball to front-line services people need right now.

"In the middle of a cost of living crisis, when families are struggling to make ends meet, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the government should be supporting public servants to deliver high-quality services, not picking fights to grab headlines."

The Cabinet Office has been approached for a comment.

John Johnston is a reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared

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