Ministers accused of using Afghan crisis in ‘cowardly’ push to get civil servants back to office

‘It’s scapegoating for political failure’, says union leader

Adam Forrest
Monday 11 October 2021 15:12
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<p>Government aims to get civil servants back into offices</p>

Government aims to get civil servants back into offices

Ministers have been accused of using Afghanistan crisis to push civil servants back into the office following claims that working from home had obstructed the government’s evacuation efforts.

The FDA trade union – which represents senior civil servants – said anonymous accusations that government staff had not worked efficiently enough during the recent crisis were “completely unfounded”.

It follows an unnamed minister attacking the “culture of absenteeism” in Whitehall, telling the Mail on Sunday: “People were left to the Taliban who could have been saved.”

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, told The Independent: “It’s the worst kind of scapegoating of civil servants for political failure.”

The union leader added: “To suggest people have died because of civil servants working from home is outrageous. Anonymous ministers know they can throw these accusations and civil servants can’t respond. It’s cowardly.”

It comes as reports suggest that government departments could face deadlines and targets to force staff to get back into the office as the Covid crisis begins to ease.

Boris Johnson used his Conservative Party conference speech to say Britain “must see people back in the office” and claimed: “A productive workforce needs that spur that only comes with face-to-face meetings and water-cooler gossip.”

But Mr Penman said flexible working and the push to get more staff working outside of London was part of the government’s agenda even before the pandemic.

“Civil servants are up in arms about this,” he said. “They are wondering what this obsession is about. It doesn’t seem to be about finding efficient ways of working – at the moment it seems to be about making civil servants a convenient scapegoat for failures.”

Mr Penman told The Independent that the FDA would reject any attempt to introduce quotas so each government department was forced to have a certain percentage of staff in the office.

He added: “If there is a push to introduce quotas it will create completely unnecessary logistical challenges for the government. It would be so counterproductive.”

The union leader also pointed out that many parts of Whitehall are already down to very low desk numbers because of cost-cutting before the Covid crisis. “In the Cabinet Office they only have three desks for every ten staff.”

Downing Street insisted that there were no plans to set out precise targets for the number of civil servants who should be working from their offices rather than from home.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said on Monday: “We are seeing a steady return of civil servants to in-office working. That’s what we would expect not just in the civil service, but in the private sector as well, and that will continue.”

The PMs spokesman it was for individual departments to monitor how many civil servants should return to the office.

The Cabinet Office also responded to the anonymous claims that sensitive documents could only be in government offices during the Afghanistan crisis, and the evacuation effort suffered from the lack of staff in the office.

A spokesman said: “We reject these claims. The Cabinet Office and its staff played an instrumental role in the success of Operation Pitting, working around the clock and helping to deliver the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history.”

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