Cabinet Office threatened with legal action over racism and bullying allegations

Union says there is “no point” in further talks with senior managers and looks to Equality and Human Rights Commission
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By Jim Dunton

06 Apr 2021

The civil service’s biggest union has said it is considering bringing legal action against the Cabinet Office, following claims of racism and bullying at the department.

PCS said it had concluded there was “no point” in trying to address concerns expressed by more than 80 staff members through further talks with senior managers and was now considering alternative options.

“We are looking at legal action, making a referral to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and working with MPs to expose the appalling situation in the Cabinet Office,” the union said in a statement.

PCS said it had compiled evidence showing that more than 80 of its members who work in the Cabinet Office had complained about being racially bullied and had “overwhelming testimony” that staff feared reprisals from management if they raised concerns about discrimination.

It added that further evidence from a presentation shown to all Cabinet Office staff last year set out “the racism and discrimination suffered by ethnic minority staff on a regular basis” and did so “in stark detail”.

PCS said the testimony in the presentation detailed daily “micro-aggressions” and the extent to which some staff felt they were regularly overlooked for promotion and career progression due to their ethnicity.

In February, the union wrote to Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm calling for an independent review of policies and practices across the whole of the department and a commitment that it had “zero tolerance of racism”.

PCS also demanded an overhaul of the department’s grievance procedure and the introduction of  a “robust industrial relations framework” that allowed unions to raise and settle difficulties quickly and with a “single point of contact outside of HR”.

A further request was for use of the term “BAME” to be ended in the Cabinet Office in favour of “Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority”.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the most recent correspondence the union had received from the Cabinet Office made it “obvious” that the meaningful action the union requested had not materialised and that it now needed to escalate its concerns by referring the case to the EHRC.

“It’s completely unacceptable that the Cabinet Office has failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation,” he said.

“The lack of significant improvements for an issue of this gravity just isn’t good enough.

“It’s a damming indictment on this key government department that we are having to look at going to the EHRC and other actions, because of their failure to tackle racism and discrimination. We hope that the Cabinet Office will now commit to make their workplaces the inclusive places their staff have been crying out for.”

In December, PCS wrote to perm sec Chisholm to complain about preliminary results from the latest Civil Service People Survey, which the union said showed an increasing reluctance on the part of staff to report bullying.

More than three months later, the 2020 People Survey results have still not been published. But PCS said at the time that draft results showed 10% of Cabinet Office staff reporting they had been bullied over the past year.

The union said that while the proportion represented a drop on the 15% of respondents who reported being bullied or harassed in the 2019 survey, it was accompanied by a 14% drop in those who said they reported incidents of bullying they had experienced and a 15% rise in people who felt they had been punished for raising incidents.

Serwotka added at the time that “large numbers” of black and ethnic minority PCS members had come forward to highlight increased prejudice they had faced in the workplace since the death of George Floyd in the United States, which prompted last spring’s Black Lives Matter protests.

A government spokesperson said the latest Civil Service People Survey showed the lowest levels of bullying, harassment and discrimination reported at the Cabinet Office in years.

“The civil service takes a zero-tolerance approach to racial discrimination, bullying, or discrimination in any form,” the spokesperson said.

“We have put in place a range of policies to prevent it from happening including investment in training and strengthening investigation procedures to give staff the confidence to raise and report concerns.”

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