Ministers risk driving ‘good people’ out of Whitehall with their criticism of working at home, the first civil service commissioner has said.
Baroness Gisela Stuart, who is tasked with overseeing civil service appointments, said she supported trade unions’ criticism of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s return-to-the-office drive. She said that publicly briefing against civil servants who worked from home was “wrong”.
Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, has been accused by the FDA union of making “crass, condescending, passive aggressive” attempts to drive staff back to their desks and of embarking on a “culture war” against civil service.
At the union’s annual conference, Stuart said she was glad unions had spoken up about attacks on civil servants. “We should all speak up when we see integrity and professionalism being undermined,” she said.
It’s not efficient to demotivate hundreds of thousands of public servants, simply so you can be the poster boy for the Daily Mail” – Dave Penman, FDA union
“To my mind briefings and anonymous attacks, they’re not just wrong, they’re also counterproductive,” she said, arguing that they “prevent people who want to join the civil service … from wanting to be part of that system”.
Stuart told union delegates: “Politicians can answer back when they feel they’ve been unfairly attacked and criticised. Civil servants can’t … you have to rely on us to make your case and to defend your professional integrity.”
Criticism of civil servants should stay private, she said, in comments that were clearly critical of Rees-Mogg’s stance.
“The minute you take an argument outside, I think you have a problem,” she said. “We just have to keep saying, ‘don’t do it’. Because the greatest danger is you keep [out] good people who want to enter public service … And that would be a mistake.”
According to Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, ministers had adopted a “one-size-fits-all cap on flexible working that’s being dictated by ministers”.
He accused Rees-Mogg of “wandering around Whitehall with his clip board and his clicker counting people at desks”.
He said: “It’s not efficient to demotivate hundreds of thousands of public servants, simply so you can be the poster boy for the Daily Mail.
“And it’s not efficient to trash the civil service brand, putting off the very people you say you want to attract.”
Penman mocked Rees-Mogg for leaving notes on empty desks that read: “Sorry you were out. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon” and said he agreed with culture secretary Nadine Dorries that his behaviour was “Dickensian.”
Penman added: “Rather than take that as a criticism, he took it as inspiration for his people management skills. That’s why he left those crass, condescending, passive aggressive little notes for people who were actually delivering vital public services.”
According to Penman, the government’s behaviour was likely to put people off joining the civil service. He said ministers appeared to be telling potential recruits “come work in the civil service — be micro-managed, demeaned, thrown under a bus if its suits us, get paid a fraction of what you would get elsewhere and, of course, you can now forget about flexible working.” He added: “His culture war against the civil service has to stop.”
Rees-Mogg, interviewed by Robert Peston on ITV, added fuel to the row last night. He said: “One of the things that worries me about working from home is the desire for people to take Mondays and Fridays off to work from home. Because this indicates there is not a serious attitude to work, it’s about extending the weekend.”
Speaking to John Pienaar on Times Radio in late April, Penman described how “the government, which used to actually be at the forefront of flexible working, is sounding like luddites, while the rest of the economy is embracing hybrid working”.