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Opinion Setting the records straight

MARK SERWOTKA takes issue with government instigated scurrilous media attacks on DVLA civil servants intended to intimidate the PCS union

WHEN a union stands up for the interests of its member and shows an unwillingness to be fazed or intimidated by unreasonable employers, it is inevitable that elements of the media will go on the attack.  

In this case, the issue is not pay or jobs but how we keep members safe during a deadly global pandemic.   

Due to some of the recent media coverage, there is a need to set the record straight.  

Civil Service union PCS has been at the forefront of prioritising the health and safety of public servants, while at the same time making sure that the vast majority can work effectively from home.   

However, contrary to some of the depictions of civil servants in recent days, tens of thousands of our members, due to the nature of their role, have been doing their jobs in the workplace — while trying to remain safe.  

Civil servants and other public-sector workers, whether in the workplace or working from home, have performed remarkable feats during the last 18 months, which, if there was any semblance of justice, would be celebrated in the mainstream media.  

They have played a critical role in keeping society functioning during multiple lockdowns and ensured key areas have been kept running, such as our courts, prisons, airports, and ports.  

Universal credit and other vital benefit payments have been able to continue with many Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff working from home.   

And without civil servants working from home, the furlough scheme, which made sure people were kept in employment despite not being able to work, could not have happened.   

Even the Chancellor and Prime Minister have acknowledged the incredible role HMRC staff played in helping protect businesses and making sure wages were paid to workers.  

It is a fact that millions of people in the UK have benefited from civil servants working from home throughout the pandemic.  

At the DVLA, staff have been clearing the backlog, primarily caused by Covid, despite the fact the office had the biggest virus outbreak in the country.   

During the time when there were 600 cases and tragically one death of a staff member, DVLA senior management were insisting staff come back into the office, to sit at desks that were less than two metres apart and allegedly bullying and intimidating union reps. 

Huw Merriman — the Tory chair of the transport select committee — even accused Julie Lennard of being “misleading” over the way in which Covid case data was presented.   

The Swansea Health Board also accused DVLA officials of failing to grasp the seriousness of the outbreak.   

According to the briefing, public health officials identified “a number of deficiencies in compliance with legal requirements to maintain physical distancing” including in the buildings, smoking shelters and buses arranged by the agency.  

One of the more egregious accusations is that our strike at the DVLA is somehow to blame for the national HGV driver shortage. Despite the obvious lack of planning around Brexit, appalling wage growth and a lack of facilities for drivers themselves, it is our strike at the DVLA that is in the minds of some the reason why there are shortages. Nothing could be further from the truth.  

From the very outset, our union has insisted that all key workers needing licences and other documents should be prioritised by DVLA.   

However, in one of the most cynical moves of this dispute, senior management have refused to engage with us on this point, which has led to increased delays for HGV drivers and NHS staff.   

After several days of strike action, at the end of April, our negotiators reached a deal to end the dispute with DVLA senior management and senior Department for Transport (DfT) civil servants.   

However, in an unprecedented move — something I haven’t seen in my 20 years as general secretary — Grant Shapps and the ministers at the DfT scuppered the deal, which included agreed Covid safety procedures and acknowledgment of the role staff had played throughout the pandemic.   

The resulting delays since June could have all been avoided if the government had wanted to end the dispute.   

But, rather like the prejudices some in the media have for trade unionists, there is a tendency in times of national crisis to look for scapegoats.  

Misdirection is a classic tactic employed by those who do not want to deal with facts or paint a balanced picture.   

And there can be no greater example than trying to blame civil servants working from home for the abject failures of the British government in Afghanistan.   

From anonymously briefing tabloids that somehow it is civil servants who are to blame for people falling victim to the Taliban to their attempts to accuse civil servants of wrongdoing, senior cabinet ministers have engaged in some of the most cowardly political behaviour I have come across.

Suffice to say, without the diligent work of civil servants at all levels and diplomats working flat out, the botched exit from Afghanistan would have been even more catastrophic.  

If anyone is deserving of blame, it’s Domnic Raab — the then foreign secretary who was sitting on his sun lounger on holiday refusing to take all-important phone calls, key to directing operations in evacuating people from Afghanistan.

Another former Tory leading light Iain Duncan Smith was also hard at work over the weekend, pumping out his latest delusional bile  by drawing comparison with civil servants working from home to the blitz.   

Perhaps IDS is unaware that computers and internet did not exist in the 1940s and that the Luftwaffe bombing was not a deadly contagious virus.   

What makes these pathetic propaganda attempts even more bizarre is that the Tory government is committed to flexible working and is legislating in that direction — it was a 2019 manifesto commitment to make flexible working a default position.

So the government’s concerted attempts to try to embarrass, intimidate and frankly make up baseless accusations against civil servants will not succeed.   

PCS will continue to wholeheartedly defend members at DVLA and is doing the same in DVSA where an unsafe new testing regime is being proposed.   

Strike action will begin next week if DVSA management do not change course. 

The unreasonable criticism levelled at our members in the parts of the media is already having the opposite effect that was intended. 

It’s water off a duck’s back to people who do vital jobs in society and PCS will never be driven off course from defending its members interests.   

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of Public and Commercial Services union (PCS).

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