New figures have revealed the Department for International Trade only has enough desk space to accommodate 22% of its staff in the office – despite a government push to get civil servants to stop working from home.
In April Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg circulated a letter to fellow ministers in which he urged them to “send a clear message to civil servants in your department to ensure a rapid return to the office”.
But data obtained by Sky News under the Freedom of Information Act show the extent to which offices in Whitehall are unable to provide sufficient desk space for all employees.
In 2022, the Department for International Trade’s office in Admiralty Place had 3,151 workers and 708 desks.
The Department of Health and Social Care’s London office had just 848 desks for 2,707 employees – meaning there is space to accommodate just 31% of staff. Since 2018, the number of workers attached has nearly tripled, but only ten extra desks have been found.
The Department for Education’s Great Smith Street headquarters has the full-time equivalent of 2,243 workers, but only 1,100 desks are available.
In 2021, the Home Office building on Marsham Street had 2,012 desks for 4,137 staff attached to the office.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on Victoria Street has less than half the number of desks required to accommodate all staff attached to their headquarters.
Shadow cabinet minister Rachel Hopkins said the figures make a “mockery” of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “futile head-counting exercise in the corridors of Whitehall”.
BEIS said their staff numbers at 1 Victoria Street have increased as the department leads on significant responsibilities to deliver “key government commitments”, including the Vaccine Taskforce.
Other departments, including the Northern Ireland Office and Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had similar desk shortfalls.
The Cabinet Office refused to release information it holds and no response was received from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or the Ministry of Defence.
Only the Department for Work and Pensions and the Foreign Office reported having enough desk space for all staff – with 2,333 desks available to the 2,158 staff employed at the former and 3,500 desks and 3,200 employees at the latter.
But despite the lack of office space available across the rest of Whitehall, the government have been pushing hard to reduce the number of civil servants from working at home.
Sky News understands Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab goes so far as to personally review pass data to check how many civil servants are coming to work at the Ministry of Justice – which has 2,138 desks available for the 4,125 staff employed at its Westminster office.
One civil servant in his department said to Sky News that he “really ought to have better things to do”.
The Ministry of Justice declined to comment but a source said “ministerial oversight on office attendance is not unusual and the MoJ is no exception.”
One civil servant told Sky News that while there is variation between departments in some cases, a lack of desks meant staff were only allowed to work in the office for three days a week before the pandemic.
Another civil servant criticised the government saying that “trying to arbitrarily force full-time office working, which can often be less effective is quite stupid, especially when in most cases offices don’t have even space anyway”.
They said the civil service has developed “really effective hybrid working patterns as a result of the pandemic”.
Yesterday the government released an update on the number of civil servants working in the office for each department.
It showed just less than a quarter of Home and Foreign Office staff worked from the office last week.
Ms Hopkins said: “These figures make a mockery of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s futile head-counting exercise in the corridors of Whitehall and the creepy notes he has been leaving for civil servants who are just trying to get on with their jobs.”
She added: “Ministers should be focusing on providing real solutions to the cost of living crisis, instead of trying blame their staff for the government’s own incompetence.”
Responding to the figures, a government spokesperson said: “The prime minister and cabinet secretary have been clear they want to see office attendance across the civil service consistently back at pre-pandemic levels and we have seen significant increases in occupancy which continues to be closely monitored.
“There is total agreement across government on there being clear benefits from face-to-face, collaborative working and we know that this is particularly important for the learning and development of new and junior members of staff.”
The government also highlighted that the use of hybrid working arrangements were not new and were in place before the pandemic.
They said most departments organise space on the basis of a ratio of desks to staff that is based on the assumption that not all staff will be in the office every day.