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Civil Servants: Return to the Office

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 24 February 2022

2. What steps his Department is taking to support the return of civil servants to the office following the end of guidance to work from home during the covid-19 outbreak. (905620)

6. What steps his Department is taking to support the return of civil servants to the office following the end of guidance to work from home during the covid-19 outbreak. (905625)

The Cabinet Office has followed central Government guidance to employers to reduce the risk of transmission in the workplace, so that all our buildings return to the maximum available capacity as soon as possible now that new restrictions have lifted.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. As well as getting Whitehall back to the office, and given the recent announcements about rolling back the state, does he agree that we should now focus on reducing both the record numbers of people working in central Government and the civil servant headcount?

I very much agree. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the spending review 2020 included a provision to do exactly that. However, the point is more nuanced, because this is also about empowering civil servants and taking away often the many layers so that the very good work of sometimes more junior civil servants can get to Ministers and senior decision makers. There is a fiscal benefit of this and an opportunity in how we better empower staff and, in turn, combine that with our learning and development offer. Indeed, that is why the Cabinet Office is doubling the learning and development package that we offer to our staff.

We all know that civil servants have a vital role in delivering and managing public services and it is essential that they can get on with that, so I welcome what has been described. However, will my right hon. Friend reassure my Aberconwy constituents by clarifying that any UK Government instruction to civil servants will also apply in Wales, where Welsh Government guidance remains to work at home?

We are clear, in relation to areas of reserved authority, that we are a UK Government—indeed, the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Union—and we have been clear on that in our messaging with Departments. The point is that many staff want to get back into the office, particularly those who do not have the benefit of a larger house, a garden and perhaps an office at home. There are often important opportunities that come from being in the office that are not always available when they work from home.

It is very good to hear the Minister’s positive response. Has the Department considered encouraging staff by allowing flexible working for a short time to allow reduced staff to acclimatise to working closely with others again? Not only is there a benefit for the workers, but there is a benefit from the economic spin-off of having people in offices so that the shops can also continue to thrive.

As an MP for a rural constituency, I absolutely recognise that point, as well as the issue of wellbeing relating to commuting times and other aspects, so this is part of a nuanced approach. However, the point is that the desks in Whitehall, for example, do not equate to the total number of full-time equivalent staff. There are already far fewer desks than FTEs, so if we are paying for office space, the question is why it would not be used. This is about using the office space that we have as well as recognising that there are opportunities for hybrid working.