Civil servants should now follow MPs back to work – Bernard Ingham

MAY God forgive them, for they know not what they do. This plea to the Lord’s infinite mercy comes to mind when I hear of the latest attempt to sabotage the post-Covid recovery.

MPs have returned to the House of Commons - why shouldn't civil servants return to their desks? Bernard Ingham poses the question.

Things have got so bad that I do not advertise my 24 years as a civil servant lest I invite the contempt usually reserved for those who worked for Margaret Thatcher.

This preoccupation with working from home is a black mark against the Civil Service when, too often, it is simply not serving the public as intended.

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Should Boris Johnson order civil servants to return to their offices?

Otherwise, readers’ letters columns in the Press would not be detailing failures or long delays in supplying vehicle and driving licences, tax rebates, probate and powers of Attorney and a general neglect of the taxpayers’ interest.

It is true that there is also evidence of prompt service but the complaints far outnumber the compliments. In other words, the system is not working, let alone on oiled wheels.

Abuses of their privileged position – job security, equal pay and index-linked pensions – are nothing new. I shall never forget when, fresh from journalism with its all-hands-on-deck in an emergency mentality, I found I had no clerical support one weekend when I had to duplicate and supply several Prices and Incomes Board reports at Harold Wilson’s urgent behest. The pair, looking as fit as fiddles, solemnly informed me they were going on sick leave to which they were entitled.

MPs have returned to the House of Commons - why shouldn't civil servants return to their desks? Bernard Ingham poses the question.

I also had foisted on me a senior press officer who solemnly announced he did not take calls from the media at weekends. He wasn’t much use to anyone. My experience also confirms that the public service is a shelter for those who, for one personal reason or another, would find the private sector a harsh and over-demanding place.

But – and this is a big but – my overwhelming experience is of a dedication to the job regardless of the inconvenience or hours required. Certainly. Mrs Thatcher’s No 10 was a positive beehive without a drone in sight and where you could also have fun.

I am frankly astonished that both Ministers and top civil servants are not demanding a full turnout for the office, especially now that Parliament is sitting normally. Do they realise how damaging this is both to the Government and the bureaucracy?

Working from home may have its attractions, but it is no way to run a railway. Quite apart from reduced performance, it damages the training of the next generation who have always learned much from interaction with others.

As if all this were not enough, we have to put up with the unions who are simply incapable of not abusing their power even though a good 25 years of it from the 1950s to the 1970s eventually cut their membership by more than half. The public had just had enough of blackmail.

The performance of public sector unions – as distinct necessarily from individual members – has been appalling. I have sometimes wondered whether teachers’ unions were in the education business, given their approach to staffing classrooms.

Similarly, there must be serious doubts whether the British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners are in the business of promoting public health. Instead of doing their best for their hard-pressed members at the sharp end of health care, they are at best equivocal about face-to-face appointments and heap blame on the Government for a breaking system.

And now we have the Unite union, which can always be guaranteed to conduct the class-war regardless of the circumstances, taking advantage of the shortage of HGV drivers by threatening a strike to ruin Christmas.

On this evidence any objective individual will conclude that the old-fashioned concept of public service that was integral to my upbringing has flown out of the window. It looks more like everyone for himself; the gimme-gimme society where you use whatever power you have to extract your undeserved whack.

It is also a demonstration of the utter hypocrisy at the heart of unrest just at a time when we need all hands to the pumps to recover from the pandemic’s severe toll on the nation’s finances and consequently on their ability to repair public services. Can’t the unions see they are behaving just like the grasping capitalists they publicly abhor? God may forgive them but the public won’t. They have longer memories than supposed.

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