Tory chair demands officials 'get off Pelotons and back to desks'

Oliver Dowden's comments appear to be targeted at DCMS perm sec Sarah Healey
Conservative Party co-chair Oliver Dowden in Manchester for the Tory conference. Photo: MI News & Sport/Alamy Live News

Conservative Party chair Oliver Dowden has been accused of “insulting hundreds of thousands” of civil servants, after demanding officials “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.

In an apparent thinly-veiled jab at the permanent secretary he worked alongside for seven months, Dowden told officials to “start leading by example” and stop working remotely.

His comments came after Sarah Healey, perm sec at the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport – where Dowden was secretary of state before being appointed Tory chair in last month’s reshuffle – said remote working during the pandemic had been a “very, very good thing” for her.

Speaking at the London Tech Week conference last month, Healey said: “I have a Peloton and I can just get on my bike whenever I have a teeny bit of time. That has been a huge benefit to my wellbeing – the lack of travelling time eating into my day.”

Healey said she is now working in the office three days a week.

The perm sec, who is also civil service wellbeing champion, also said in a recent blog post that hot yoga and long weekend lunches had helped shore up her own wellbeing during the Covid crisis.

But her former culture secretary colleague appeared to disagree with Healey’s assessment of the benefits of working from home.

Dowden told the Conservative Party conference fringe event there are currently "more desks occupied" at Conservative Party headquarters than at DCMS.

The former culture secretary said: "People really want the government to lead by example, they want civil servants to get back to work.”

His comments were met with derision by critics who pointed out that few civil servants are likely to be able to afford the high-end exercise bikes.

Dowden’s Labour Party counterpart Anneliese Dodds accused the politician of being “out of touch”, commenting: "Oliver Dowden thinks people are sitting at home on Pelotons (RRP: £1,750) instead of working.”

And FDA union general secretary Dave Penman said: “Dowden has managed to simultaneously undermine the permanent secretary who loyally served him, knowing she can’t answer back, while insulting hundreds of thousands of dedicated public servants. Is that his idea of hybrid working?"

“The hypocrisy of ministers – who are happy to bank the savings in office space delivered by hybrid working but decry the practice for the party faithful – is frankly insulting to the dedication, professionalism and commitment of 1,000s of public servants,” he added.

Dowden’s comments came the same day as Boris Johnson suggested workers who do not return to physical offices risk being “gossipped about”.

“I think that for young people in particular, it is really essential… if you’re going to learn on the job, you can’t just do it on Zoom,” he told LBC.

“You’ve got to know what everyone else is talking about. Otherwise, you’re going to be gossiped about and you’re going to lose out,” the PM added.

“You need to be there, and you have the stimulus of exchange and competition.”

Johnson said many civil servants continued to work from home, but added: “The cabinet secretary has written a pretty good letter some weeks ago to everybody telling them to get back to their desks.”

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