Andy McSmith's Diary: Whitehall: Where 'smart working' means not having your own desk


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Indy Politics

If there is one thing a Whitehall civil servant surely needs, it is a desk.

I mean how can you be a bureaucrat without a bureau from behind which to do your ‘cratting? But that is not how the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude sees the future of the civil service.

He is the driving force behind a “quiet revolution” that has brought hotdesking to Whitehall. This new thinking is set out in a “A Guide to Smart Working in Government”, a report published last July, which laid down that departmental staff should “work in a range of settings for different activities rather than ranks of individually assigned desks”.

The Labour MP Helen Goodman claims the disappearing desks have provoked complaints from at least two permanent secretaries.

On busy days, apparently, Whitehall’s finest are wandering their departments like refugees, with no office, nor desk, but only a memory stick. She has tabled a series of questions to find out exactly how many desks there are remaining for civil servants to sit behind.

The Department for Business, to take one example, reports that it now has 2,601 “work stations.” According to a separate answer, it has 3,112 staff. That is five desks for every six employees. It must be nomadic inside the biz department, but since they do not own any of their desks and lease them at a cost of over £6,000  per employee, you can see that it is at least saving money.

Taking the Michael

When the former Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, had his disastrous confrontation with the police in Downing Street two years ago, one thing he knew he could never count on was support from his fellow Tory whip, Michael Fabricant.

Mitchell’s hopes of a future in politics ended expensively when a judge decided that he probably did call the police officers “plebs”.

Yesterday, Fabricant expressed his feelings in a gleeful tweet: “I am now off to Number 10 to give the always courteous and efficient police officers there a Christmas card. They have had a tough two years.”

Splitting heirs

Five months ago, David Cameron made a sarcastic and wildly inaccurate attack on the so-called “red princes”, the sons of Labour MPs who aspire to follow in their fathers’ trade. “Son of Blair, son of Straw, son of Prescott, son of Dromey – the red princes…” he sneered.

The only fact he got right was that Will Straw is indeed Labour candidate in the marginal Tory seat of Rossendale and Darwen. Neither Euan Blair nor Joe Dromey has put himself forward to be a parliamentary candidate anywhere. David Prescott had, several times, without success.

Now, finally, at the age of 44, Prescott junior has been selected to fight Gainsborough, in Lincolnshire. The last time Gainsborough elected an MP who was not a Conservative or Unionist was in 1923, when it was won by a Liberal. The sitting Tory MP, Sir Edward Leigh, has a majority of 10,559. The Labour Party has not laid a red carpet down for the son of Lord Prescott.

A bill of a different nature

The Parliament building is in such a terrible state that it could actually become uninhabitable unless it receives billions of pounds of tender loving care in the next few years. Deloitte Real Estate has been paid more than £2m to investigate and report, but their findings are not going to be published for at least another six months. Why not? Because while the government imposes spending cuts on the rest of the population, MPs dare not tell the public how much it will cost to do repair work that should have been done long ago.

John Thurso, the MP who chairs the relevant committee, the House of Commons Commission, confirmed yesterday that we can expect to see the report in June or July – a few weeks after the general election. Work may begin in spring 2016.