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Tuesday 10 August 2021

Government must distance itself from “insulting and cowardly” comments on home working

The FDA has called for the Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove to publicly distance the government from a series of anonymous briefings in the press, in which ministers attacked civil servants for working from home and threatening to cut their pay unless they went back into workplaces.

In a letter to Gove, General Secretary Dave Penman said that “these insulting and cowardly attacks require a response from government” due to the “detrimental impact they are having across the civil service”.

Penman highlighted that throughout the pandemic civil servants have “pioneered news ways of working” by transforming from office based to home based almost overnight, “whilst at the same time delivering on the changing priorities of government, including supporting over nine million workers in the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and coping with a sixfold increase in Universal Credit claims”.

“Yet those same civil servants have woken up today to threats from anonymous cabinet ministers to cut their pay and a series of denigrating remarks about their commitment and effectiveness whilst working from home. I cannot impress upon you enough the upset and anger these comments have caused among civil servants,” he explained.

The letter also highlights the inherent contradiction in these briefings, as the government’s flagship Places for Growth Strategy is predicated on greater flexible working and only last week the HMRC Leeds hub welcomed eight new government departments as a result of hybrid working reducing office space requirements.

Additionally, the General Secretary questioned the suggestion from certain ministers that “face to face” meetings are critical to your career: “If “face to face” time is so critical to careers, what message should civil servants working in the Cabinet Office in Glasgow or HM Treasury in Darlington take when, inevitably, they will have less “face to face” time with ministers?”

He ultimately called on Gove, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office, to consider an urgent message to civil servants “publicly distancing the government from the anonymous comments from cabinet ministers, recognising their incredible achievements over the last 18 months and assuring them of the government's commitment to a well-managed transition to the new working arrangements”.

The FDA also firmly pushed back in an interview with Times Radio, with Penman accusing some in government of creating a “phoney war” during parliamentary recess “to do a little bit of headline grabbing and civil service bashing”, which “doesn’t actually reflect the actual world of the civil service or across the broader economy”.

Committing to defend civil servants wherever they are attacked, the General Secretary also debated with Nigel Farage on GB News, stressing that it’s “not about going ‘back to work’, it’s about going back to the office”, as people have been working throughout pandemic, whether that’s at home or in their workplaces. He challenged Farage’s negative view of hybrid working, explaining that the reason it’s being embraced by both public and private sector organisations is because they’ve recognised that a hybrid arrangement “is an effective way to work”.

“It works for employers and employees,” he said. “Employees get greater flexibility – they don’t have the commute five days a week – employers get reduced costs and, for the taxpayer, that means reduced costs in terms of office accommodation. So, it’s a win-win for taxpayers, it’s a win-win for civil servants, and it’s a win-win for employers and employees in the private sector.”

Quotes from the FDA were also reported in the Telegraph, the Mirror, the Express, Mail Online, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Morning StarCivil Service Worldthe iThe GuardianLeft Foot Forward, the FT, the Evening Standard, the Times, Sky News and BBC News.

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