A call for civil servants who refuse to return to their desks in Whitehall to have their pay cut has been rejected by a Cabinet minister.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he would like to see officials in his department going into the office two or three days a week.
However, during a round of broadcast interviews he acknowledged that flexible working—with staff working at least some of their time from home—was “here to stay.”
His comments came after one unnamed Cabinet minister told the Daily Mail that officials who would not return to the office should have their pay docked.
The minister argued that those staff who continued to work from home were receiving a “de facto pay rise” as they did not have any commuting costs, which was “unfair” to those going into the office.
However, Kwarteng strongly rejected the claim, saying that officials who were home-working were making an important contribution.
“I would never suggest that. I don’t know who it was. I think people working from home are contributing hugely to the workforce,” he told LBC radio.
Kwarteng said that while he would like to see more officials in the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy coming in, he was reluctant to set a firm timetable.
“We don’t know when the COVID pandemic will end. We don’t know what the circumstances will be, but ideally I’d like most workers—all workers—in my department to be coming in two or three days a week,” he said.
“I think three days a week is fair. I’m just reluctant to say it has to be by Sept. 1 or Sept. 15. I think it needs to be done fairly soon [but] that we need to look at where we are with the pandemic before we can make that call.”
He said it did not make sense for the government to try to dictate to employers in the private sector how quickly they brought back their staff.
“I think flexible working is something that is here to stay, but I’ve always said that I think it’s up to employers and employees to come to their own arrangements depending on the needs of the company and the needs of the business,” he told the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme.
“I don’t think it makes sense to have a government diktat telling people exactly how many hours they’re going to spend in the office and exactly how many hours they’re going to spend at home.”
Earlier, civil service unions reacted angrily to the suggestion that staff who carried on working from home could face a pay cut.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, told the PA news agency: “These insulting comments from ministers and politicians only demonstrate that they are out of touch with modern working practices.
“Across the economy—in both the private and public sectors—employers are embracing hybrid working, which provides greater work-life balance for employees and reduced office costs for employers.
“What should matter to ministers is whether public services are being delivered effectively, not where individual civil servants are sitting on a particular day.”
The row erupted as it emerged plans to require staff at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to be based partly in the office in September have been scrapped, meaning civil servants there can continue to work from home full-time.
The Guardian reported the DHSC had put its staff on notice that from September the “minimum expectation” was they would need to be in the office for a minimum of four and a maximum of eight days every month—unless there was a business or wellbeing reason.
A government spokesperson said: “The Civil Service continues to follow government guidance as we gradually and cautiously increase the number of staff working in the office.
“Our approach, which builds on our learning during the pandemic, takes advantage of the benefits of both office and home-based working across the UK.”
By Gavin Cordon