No 10 has backed Jacob Rees-Mogg over Nadine Dorries amid a cabinet split over his drive to get civil servants to stop working from home, which Dorries had labelled “Dickensian”.
Rees-Mogg, who has previously been called “the honourable member for the 18th century”, had written to cabinet ministers urging them to coerce staff into a “rapid return to the office” and has been leaving notes in empty Whitehall workspaces with the message: “I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
Labour MPs called the move “patronising” and “passive-aggressive”.
Rees-Mogg presented figures to cabinet last week showing that some government departments were using 25% of office capacity in early April. Dorries’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was at 43%.
Asked if Johnson backed Rees-Mogg’s policy of leaving calling cards at vacant desks, the PM’s official spokesperson said: “What the minister is seeking to achieve is to do everything possible to get the civil service to return to the pre-pandemic level. That is what he is seeking to do. That is supported by the cabinet secretary and obviously the prime minister.”
Johnson “supports any initiative that encourages people to return to pre-pandemic working”, the spokesperson said, referring to the notes left on desks.
“We are not talking about putting an end to flexible working, which continues to have a place in the modern workplace, we are talking about returning to pre-pandemic use of taxpayer-funded departmental buildings.”
In comments briefed to the Times, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, said Rees-Mogg’s letter to government departments brought to mind “images of burning tallow, rheumy eyes and Marley’s ghost”, in reference to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
She said: “There’s a whiff of something Dickensian about it. Why are we measuring bodies behind desks? Why aren’t we measuring productivity?”
Dorries and Rees-Mogg have previously disagreed about the need to return to places of work after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said Rees-Mogg’s approach would mean that “good people will leave and the civil service brand is trashed in a highly competitive employment market”.
He said: “It sends a signal that he simply does not understand how modern offices work. He doesn’t understand … what’s happening across the economy, not just in the public sector.”
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Rees-Mogg used a Mail on Sunday article to say officials could lose the London weighting on their pay or have their jobs moved elsewhere if they were not at their desks.
“Those who are at their desks every day seem to be younger, hardworking and ambitious civil servants, often renting house-shares in London for whom the office provides the right environment for work.
“Meanwhile, others enjoy the fruits of their London weighting at home in the shires. As the minister responsible for government property, it is my job to ensure the government estate is run efficiently and commercially. Empty offices are a cost to the taxpayer.
“Essentially, if people are not back in their office it will be fair to assume that the job does not need to be in London,” he said.
Internal HR policies obtained by the Daily Mail said working remotely could not be used as a way to avoid paying for childcare or put in fewer hours, and that there would be penalties if people’s performance was found to be suffering.
Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservative party, defended Rees-Mogg’s approach in a Sky News interview.
He said: “As we learn to live with Covid, I think if we really want to serve the British people best, one of the things we need to do is have that collaboration, that kind of sharing ideas that comes from working in the office.
“So, Jacob’s efforts are driven by getting the very best value for taxpayers and I support him in doing that.”