Throughout much of 2021, ministers have been keen to get civil servants back into Whitehall. Oliver Dowden called for mandarins to 'get off their Pelotons and back to their desks'; his fellow Tory Jake Berry has accused them of 'woke-ing from home.' But the civil servants themselves have proved somewhat reluctant to do so, with Dave Penman, the leader of the FDA trade union, suggesting ministers instead should be celebrating the civil service… making the most of new technology whilst making savings for the taxpayer.'
In spite of the government's efforts to pressure businesses to order staff to return to the office, it appears that such efforts have also fallen short in the state sector, with the chief executive of HMRC only asking staff to return to the office 'for an average of one day per week.' And now Mr S has discovered the reason why some mandarins are perhaps so reluctant to return to the office. For Freedom of Information requests to 107 ministerial departments and government agencies reveal that at least £33.3 million has been spent on costs for home working equipment for officials between March 2020 and September 2021.
While such spend will no doubt be justified on the grounds of necessity, Mr S does have his doubts about some of the purchased. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – an agency which ought to know a thing or two about waste – stumped up £499 on 8 footrests or £62 each. Amazon's best-seller, by comparison, goes for less than £40. Over at the Water Services Regulation Authority meanwhile, employees managed to spend £179.72 on an HDMI cable – starting from only £5.99 at the internet’s leading marketplace. Talk about splashing out. Top spending agencies were the HMRC with £7.9 million (ironic) followed by NHS England and Improvement's £5.9 million and the Land Registry in third with £2.5 million.
The star performers, however, must be the Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland. In a department with a staff of 3,040, employees managed to spend a whopping £2.8 million between them – the equivalent of £928 each. At least the vagaries of the Northern Ireland Protocol haven’t impacted office essentials as much as the country's sausages. Even the government's spending watchdogs – the Office for National Statistics – managed to spend more than £1.5 million between its 5,000 or so employees. Don't expect to see that quoted in a Rishi Budget any time soon.
Such largesse as the government seeks to tighten its belt might have elicited the response from Sir Humphrey: 'Are you sure that's wise, minister?'