Flexible working, enabling people to carry on doing their jobs partly from home, will outlast the pandemic and is “here to stay”, a UK cabinet minister has said.
The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said government should not be telling firms where their employees should be working because they were best placed to decide for themselves. But he also said that he would be “encouraging” his own civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to return to the office.
Kwarteng’s comments contrast with those of ministers who have been briefing newspapers anonymously that they are opposed to working from home continuing into the autumn if, as expected, the pandemic continues to recede.
Asked if working from home should be allowed to continue, Kwarteng told Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think flexible working is something that is here to stay.”
He continued: “I think it’s up to employers and employees to come to their own arrangements, depending on the needs of the company, the needs of the business.
“I don’t think it makes sense to have a government diktat telling people exactly how many hours they’re going to spend in the office and exactly how many hours they’re going spend at home.”
Last summer, the government was very keen to persuade workers back into the office, with a briefing suggesting that employees who continued to work from home risked losing their jobs. But the campaign had only limited impact, and ministers had to change tack as Covid cases rose again.
Some ministers are trying the same argument again, with an unnamed member of the government telling the Daily Mail on Monday that people working from home should be paid less, and the Times quoting a minister saying people who stayed away from the office would be less likely to gain promotion.
But Kwarteng’s comment about flexible working being “here to stay” is in line with the Conservative manifesto, which promised to encourage the practice.
Asked if he would allow his own officials to continue working from home, Kwarteng said: “I’ll be encouraging them to come in but, of course, there’ll be a degree of flexibility.”
In his Today interview, Kwarteng said he did not think there was any chance of Boris Johnson demoting Rishi Sunak, the chancellor. At the weekend it was reported that the prime minister had floated the idea in a meeting with aides because he was angry about a letter from Sunak raising concerns about Covid travel restrictions.
Asked if there was any prospect of Sunak being moved, Kwarteng said: “I don’t think there is, but that’s up to the prime minister. I think Rishi’s doing a great job as chancellor.”
Kwarteng said “creative tension” was inevitable in the relationship between No 10 and No 11, but he said the bond between Johnson and Sunak was “as cohesive as any relationship of that kind of that I’ve seen”.