Civil Servants: Working from Home

Thursday 1st February 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Question
11:06
Asked by
Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby
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To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to review the effect on public services of civil servants working from home.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con)
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My Lords, there are clear benefits from face-to-face, workplace-based collaborative working. That is why departments have issued new guidance that most civil servants should spend at least 60% of their working time in the office and our senior civil servants have been told that they need to set an example as leaders.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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I am most grateful to my noble friend for that Answer but are we not a trading nation? If we are, should we not support our industry, commerce and individual entrepreneurs? How can they possibly do what we want them to do when they—let alone the poor ordinary person who is equally affected—cannot get the support they need from His Majesty’s departments of state, whether that amounts to telephone calls unanswered, emails not returned, or meetings rescheduled? Against that background, we now know from a report published by the National Audit Office that this is costing over £5 billion a year on procurement, and on theft and fraud, again, over £5 billion a year. Will my noble friend, as a senior Minister and with her teams, meet the Civil Service to ensure that we get good, firm leadership that is aspirational and involves civil servants at all stages, and recognise that working from home is not viable?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I agree with a lot of what my noble friend says. He and I both have a background in retail and leadership is very important. That is one reason why the new Minister for the Cabinet Office, John Glen—well known to many of your Lordships—set out in a speech how the Civil Service should lead in providing public services. That included spending a minimum 60% of working time in the office, with leaders encouraging that because of the benefits it brings to the workforce.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as an academic who has worked from home for at least two days of the working week throughout my career. Email and mobile phones have made it a great deal easier to do so and still be efficient. The introduction of hot-desking in Whitehall and the squeeze on places for staff to work mean that it is difficult for everyone to have a desk if they come in every day. Is that a constraint on the Civil Service bringing people back in to work?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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Clearly, the Civil Service is changing to have a very good approach, which is to modernise the property that civil servants are working in. We are doing more outside London, as the noble Lord will know. That is allowing a more modern approach in the office, with more hot-desking. Some of the offices are full some of the time, but it is important that we use our property properly in the interests of value for money, while modernising it so that it is a good workplace. One of the things young people say is that they want to come to a nice place to work; my department, the Cabinet Office, is certainly a very nice place to work.

Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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The Minister has regularly referred to time in the office and work in offices. I am especially concerned about those people employed by the Government who do not work in offices. They work to clean buildings or provide refreshment services and the like. What proportion of staff have the option of deciding which days of the week they come in and which days they do not? Is there is a correlation—there must be a rough one, but maybe she can put me wrong—so that it is basically the lower-paid workers who do not have the option of working from home? Perhaps they should be compensated in some other way.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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Each department is its own employer, as the noble Lord will know, so the arrangements vary. He is right that it is different not only for the people who clean the offices but for prison officers and immigration officers. There are different demands on their time. Noble Lords should look at, in addition to our policy on working from home, our policy on flexibility, which has been enhanced by recent legislation. The Civil Service has used flexible working as a tool in attracting, recruiting and retaining talent. That would include some of the operatives whom he is talking about. In a 24/7 economy, that flexible working can be very valuable but it does not necessarily mean working from home, which is the subject of today’s Question.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, mentioned economic diversity, but what assessment have the Government made of the impact of this new ruling on other types of diversity in the workforce? I think particularly of those with significant disabilities. Working from home has enabled them to imagine careers they might not otherwise have had. Has this been taken into account in this new ruling?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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It has, and the noble Baroness is right to mention attracting disabled persons into the workforce, which I have always thought important. We make some limited use of home-working contracts for certain roles. We promote adjustments for people with disabilities. On the Procurement Act, which I recently took through this House, the lead official had a very substantial disability; he is blind. That can go side by side with ensuring that, much of the time, those who are office-based are in the office and working with other colleagues in the Civil Service.

Baroness Wyld Portrait Baroness Wyld (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend mentioned younger civil servants. Does she agree that, whether it is in the Civil Service or the private sector, the way younger workers learn and prosper is by observing their senior colleagues and having the opportunity to share ideas and thinking? Is there not an onus on senior civil servants to make the case more powerfully for working in the office?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I completely agree with my noble friend and that is part of our approach. I noticed in the press recently that the president of Adecco, an international recruitment company, said that working from home can hit creativity and empathy and was part of the problem we have with soft skills. I am very keen that we should have balance, but people should come into the office and get the sort of mentorship my noble friend has mentioned.

Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab)
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My Lords, it is certainly true that the Government ought to think much harder about their approach to the Civil Service. The overuse of external consultants, for example, is expensive and gradually undermining in-house expertise. The Government awarded £2.8 billion of consulting contracts in 2022 alone. Does the Minister agree that the Government should work hard to retain expertise within the service? Will she commit the Government to cutting back on their habitual overreliance on consultants?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I do not see an overreliance on consultants. While I have been a Minister—only just over one year—we have moved to replace consultants with full-time civil servants in areas such as digital, because they represent better value for money. We probably have a certain amount of alignment on that. Clearly, we need to use outside consultants for some things, not least bringing in skills on things such as AI where we do not have the Civil Service skills we need. There has to be a balance; consultants can be valuable. Where I am with the noble Baroness is that there needs to be proper value for money and proper competition and we should not overdo it.

Lord Hogan-Howe Portrait Lord Hogan-Howe (CB)
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My Lords, I declare my interests. One thing that has never been properly explained is how people working from home with access to data on their laptops et cetera protect that data when it includes private information. I hear now that the police service is working from home, which I find bizarre. Of course the police are trying to support victims, but how can you be walking around a supermarket or at home with all this data, which other people can see? How do you stop that happening? This includes banks and may include the Civil Service. It is a very important issue, which I do not hear being discussed much.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for raising this question. Of course, he helps the Cabinet Office a lot through his role as a non-executive director. On security, obviously we had a big move because of Covid, which was favourable in terms of people having more kit at home, allowing them to pick things up. That has been established in a secure way. There are protocols for how you must use office kit; you cannot forward or print things. We are trialling work on devices that allow you to have parliamentary or government access on the same device, to make sure that security is protected. A lot of effort and expense is going into trying to keep us secure, but we need to do more because security is a big challenge.