RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: Working From Home, Brexit-hating Whitehall needs a hurricane-force hosing down

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The ‘hard rain’ is about to fall. Ministers have been given a month to draw up plans to cut civil service numbers by a fifth.

Not before time. At long last, the storm clouds are gathering over a self-serving, sclerotic bureaucracy grown fat and lazy and over-ripe for fundamental reform.

Boris Johnson yesterday ordered a cull of 91,000 civil service jobs. That may only take the total headcount back to where it was in 2016, but it’s a start. 

Initially, the Government hopes to achieve £3.5 billion in savings through natural wastage, by freezing recruitment and not replacing staff who leave.

While any attempt to slash the public sector wage bill is welcome, this modest initiative doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

It’s more of a light drizzle than a hard rain. What the corridors of Whitehall need is a hurricane-force hosing down.

Ministers should start by tackling head-on the institutionalised culture of absenteeism, which has developed over the past two years.

Jacob Rees-Mogg's (pictured) characteristically courteous efforts to persuade his members to go back to work full-time were met with a preposterous attack by the First Division Association (FDA), writes Richard Littlejohn

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s (pictured) characteristically courteous efforts to persuade his members to go back to work full-time were met with a preposterous attack by the First Division Association (FDA), writes Richard Littlejohn

Otherwise, even if they do manage to succeed in cutting the payroll by 91,000, will anyone actually notice?

Most Government offices are still practically deserted, despite the lifting of Covid restrictions, as the debilitating cult of ‘working from home’ has become set in stone.

If services to the public were running as smoothly as a top-of-the-range Tesla on full charge, that might not be a problem.

Instead, applications for everything from driving licences and passports to tax rebates are suffering from intolerable delays, as staff sit at home munching Hobnobs and gawping at daytime TV, while pretending to be taking part in Zoom meetings.

The DVLA in Swansea is a well-documented basket case, with fewer than 20 per cent of employees on deck at any one time.

All efforts to enforce normal, pre-pandemic working have met with entrenched resistance from the unions. 

This week the leader of the First Division Association, which represents top civil servants on six-figure salaries, launched a preposterous attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s characteristically courteous efforts to persuade his members to go back to work full-time.

Dave Penman protested on behalf of his members currently enjoying ‘hybrid’ working that it is ‘not efficient to be paid £150,000 a year to wander round offices’.

He clearly has no conception of how ridiculous he sounds. Or what the job description of a manager actually is.

Dave Penman (pictured), leader of the FDA union protested it is 'not efficient to be paid £150,000 a year to wander round offices’

Dave Penman (pictured), leader of the FDA union protested it is ‘not efficient to be paid £150,000 a year to wander round offices’

Can you imagine anyone claiming that it was not efficient for Jurgen Klopp to be paid £15 million a year to wander round the training ground at Liverpool FC?

Somehow, I can’t imagine Man City’s Pep Guardiola being quite as successful if he decided to spend the lion’s share of his time at home on a Peloton before a big game while his players took the dog for a walk.

Judging by his mugshot in yesterday’s Mail, Penman looks like one of those truculent TUC dinosaurs I used to deal with in the 1970s and 1980s when I was a labour correspondent.

We all now know how well that turned out, after Maggie Thatcher defeated the miners and Rupert Murdoch saw off the print unions at Wapping. 

If Penman’s not careful, he’s going to end up as extinct as the Scargills of yesteryear. And his members will be buried with him.

Intriguingly, alongside the headline figure of 91,000 job cuts, the Government is also planning to introduce Artificial Intelligence (AI) to replace thousands of tasks currently done manually by civil servants.

Why not? If we can bank and shop securely online without ever coming into contact with a human being, then why can’t we do likewise when it comes to renewing a passport or driving licence?

If Amazon can issue a refund at the click of a mouse, then it shouldn’t be beyond the capability of HMRC to approve a tax rebate online in seconds. 

Sadly, the civil service is stuck in the past and fiercely protective of its over-complex, antediluvian practices.

The manual unions in the car industry and the Print learned the hard way. When I covered British Leyland in Birmingham, they were still metal-bashing by hand.

BL’s biggest plant, Longbridge, was effectively run by the Communist shop steward Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson.

At a time when rivals in Japan and Europe were modernising rapidly, Britain’s unions fought tooth and nail against progress. 

Any attempt to streamline Mini manufacture with modern technology was guaranteed to be greeted with an all-out strike.

I can remember a gloating 1979 advertising poster for the new Fiat Strada, put together on a fully automated, computer-controlled production line.

It read: ‘Built by Robots, Not by Robbos.’

Pictured is Whitehall street in London, home of the Civil Service. Any civil servant refusing to return to their desks five days a week by June 1 should be sacked without compensation, writes Richard Littlejohn

Pictured is Whitehall street in London, home of the Civil Service. Any civil servant refusing to return to their desks five days a week by June 1 should be sacked without compensation, writes Richard Littlejohn

Within a few years, BL was dead as a dodo, taking 180,000 jobs with it. 

Dave Penman is the Red Robbo of Whitehall and his members are little more than cannon fodder, hastening their own demise.

If ministers stay strong, AI will see off bone-idle WFH civil service grunts as surely as new tech swept away the wheeltappers and shunters of old.

In the short term, the Government should do what this column has been advocating since the summer of 2020. Issue an ultimatum, just as Ronald Reagan did to America’s striking air traffic controllers.

Any civil servant refusing to return to their desks five days a week by, say, June 1 should be sacked without compensation. 

Sure, the unions would wail and gnash their teeth, but the imminent threat of the dole queue in the face of a cost-of-living crisis would certainly concentrate the minds.

In the medium term, the Government has a far more serious — indeed, sinister — problem.

And that is the obstructionist attitude of our most senior public servants, who increasingly defy the instructions of ministers and the will of the British people.

Remainers to a mandarin, they seem hell-bent on stopping Boris Johnson reaping the benefits of a hard-won Brexit, and throwing a grenade in the path of any measure they consider to be excessively Conservative.

The outgoing Australian High Commissioner in London recently exposed how blatantly the pro-Brussels upper echelons of the civil service had tried to scupper an Anglo-Australian trade deal.

George Brandis, Australian High Commissioner to the UK, has spoken out about dealing with the Civil Service while working on an Anglo-Australian trade deal

George Brandis, Australian High Commissioner to the UK, has spoken out about dealing with the Civil Service while working on an Anglo-Australian trade deal

George Brandis said he had encountered ‘reluctance bordering on hostility’, especially within Defra, the food and environment department. 

As I wrote a few weeks ago, these arrogant, unelected Sir Humphreys take the view that ministers are here today, gone tomorrow, so they need take no notice of them.

Their primary loyalty is not to the voters who pay their fat salaries and gold-plated pensions, but to the EU and the Left-wing freemasonry Common Purpose, which has infiltrated every single branch of Government and so-called ‘public service’ — including the police, who increasingly become involved in politically motivated investigations.

They also know how to exploit the weakness in ministers they can intimidate.

The prime incarnation of this repellent species was Mark ‘Three Jobs’ Sedwill, who was to Theresa May what Rod Hull was to Emu.

At least Boris managed to get rid of Sedwill, who floated off with a peerage to lucrative sinecures with Rothchilds investment bank and Lloyd’s of London.

But not before moving heaven and earth to derail Brexit and landing us with a potentially disastrous threat to national security in the form of the deal to let the Chinese Communist Party’s contractor build our 5G infrastructure — a dreadful mistake which is now having to be unravelled.

Only yesterday we learned that Chinese-made CCTV cameras on our streets contain hidden microphones which can be used to spy on the public.

Sedwill may be gone, but others like him remain in post. They make no attempt even to disguise their contempt for democratically elected ministers.

Former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill (pictured) left his role in the Civil Service after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister

Former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill (pictured) left his role in the Civil Service after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister

While Boris still has his majority, he should seize his chance. It’s time to clean house, to rid Whitehall of its entrenched culture of complacency, inertia and entitlement.

The Prime Minister should get rid immediately of any department head still refusing to insist on staff returning to work.

But even that won’t be enough. As I wrote back in June 2020 when Sedwill was finally shown the door, the entire culture and ideology of the civil service must be overhauled ruthlessly and without delay.

The horribly dysfunctional Home Office should be broken up and those civil servants attempting to sabotage the Rwanda deal fired on the spot.

As for the Foreign Office, all you need to know is that during the retreat from Afghanistan, the most senior FO official Sir Philip Barton failed to return from his Dordogne chateau until 11 days after the fall of Kabul. So it’s little wonder that his minions are under no pressure to return to their own desks.

Barton and his entire top team at the Foreign Office should be sacked and replaced by people from the private sector who see their job as representing Britain abroad, not acting as emissaries for foreign governments in London.

Dominic Cummings — Boris’s former Mad Monk — identified the rot and the solutions. 

Dominic Cummings (pictured), former advisor to Boris Johnson, 'identified the rot and the solutions' to the Civil Service, writes Richard Littlejohn

Dominic Cummings (pictured), former advisor to Boris Johnson, ‘identified the rot and the solutions’ to the Civil Service, writes Richard Littlejohn

It was Cummings who promised the hard rain, but imploded after a series of run-ins with the permanent civil service (and Carrie Antoinette) and is long gone.

Boris desperately needs another Clint Eastwood-style enforcer to take on the Blob. Someone with the inside knowledge and bottle to get the job done.

There’s no better candidate right now than Lord Frost, the man who got Brexit over the line in the teeth of ferocious opposition.

Can Boris keep his nerve, send for Frost, fix bayonets and cut a swathe through Whitehall?

We know he likes his Churchillian posturing, which he’s employed to great effect over Ukraine.

But an even harder test awaits on the Home Front.

Maggie Thatcher had the resolve to take on and defeat the miners. This is Boris’s chance to break the civil service stranglehold once and for all.

Let the hard rain fall.

Dev

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