Cabinet Office hires external firm to investigate bullying case

Unions say independent investigators will bring “impartiality, experience and authority to the table"
Photo: Mikey/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Tevye Markson

23 May 2022

The Cabinet Office has brought in an external company to investigate into a bullying, harassment and discrimination case.

The department has handed a £34,425 contract to Hertfordshire-based company Conflict Management Plus to carry out an independent investigation into a “bullying, harassment and discrimination case, which involves a number of respondents and witnesses”.

The company, which says it provides “watertight processes and professional handling” for “grievance investigations into serious complaints, bullying, harassment, and whistleblowing cases”, will run a four-week probe, spending around half that time complainants, witnesses and respondents.

The other half will be used for case management and scoping; evaluating evidence; report writing; quality assurance; an executive summary; and a debrief to the Cabinet Office.

After receiving the investigator’s report, the Cabinet Office will make the final decision on what action, if any, to take.

Unions have welcomed the development, although a Cabinet Office spokesperson told CSW the contract does not signal a change in policy. They said the department uses external investigators to help with independence, timeliness and efficiency.

However, FDA assistant secretary Steven Littlewood said he has noticed "a couple of cases recently” where the Cabinet Office had brought in an external investigator where it had not in the past.

Littlewood said the change seems to have happened in the last few months and comes after criticism from unions that internal investigations have not been professional enough.

“Casework was one of the themes that kept coming up… It was taking too long. I think there is a bit of a resource issue. You give it to a manager to do it and they have lots of other things to do,” he said. He said the FDA and other unions had raised the issue with the Cabinet Office.

PCS said outsourcing investigations would help to improve the quality and speed of investigations.

“We support the introduction of external investigators because they bring impartiality, experience and authority to the table,” general secretary Mark Serwotka said.

“And unlike the current investigators, who carry out their investigations while doing their day jobs, they will be able to report back their findings in a timely manner.”

The Cabinet Office launched a respect and inclusion review last year amid accusations of racism and discrimination towards disabled staff.

PCS withdrew from the review in March, saying it had “sought to work cooperatively with the department, but management have resisted and appear to have seen the review as an exercise in damage limitation”.

“PCS has been campaigning for two years for the department to work with us to deal with racism and disability discrimination, but we have been met with defensiveness and intransigence,” the union said.

“We will now pursue other options to ensure that this failing department is held to and upholds the standards which every working person has a right to expect.”

A year earlier, PCS had said it was considering legal action after more than 80 black staff members in the civil service have raised concerns about racism and bullying. This included a black civil servant reportedly tried to take their own life after “prolonged racial bullying” in a government department.

The Civil Service People Survey, published at the end of April, shows the latest situation at the Cabinet Office according to the department's own officials, with 11% saying they have been bullied or harassed over the past 12 months, down from 14% in 2020. Discrimination figures have gone in the opposite direction, edging up from 10% to 11%.

One recent high-profile case is that of black former civil servant Kay Badu, an ex-Government Digital Service official who received a six-figure settlement in September from the Cabinet Office over racial discrimination allegations. Badu called for an investigation into what he said was a “systemic” issue in the department in February.

Instances of racism and discrimination issues are by no means confined to the Cabinet Office, with a former HM Prison Service civil servant also receiving a large payout last year from the Ministry of Justice last year after what she has described as "nearly 20 years being racially abused and traumatised, let down and unfairly scrutinised”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson declined to comment on the contract as it concerns an HR issue, but said the department is committed to a zero tolerance approach to bullying, harassment and discrimination.

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