MoJ civil servant won six-figure sum over 20-year 'racial discrimination ordeal'

Olivea Ebanks said she would “never recommend that anybody works in the civil service” after her experience
Ministry of Justice. Photo: Marcin Rogozinski/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

09 May 2022

A former civil servant received a six-figure settlement 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".

Olivea Ebanks, 58, took the MoJ to court three times in 12 years, winning the first case, losing the second and agreeing a settlement for the third.

Ebanks spent two decades working in the prisons service and other parts of the MoJ, during which she says she was racially insulted, had her career progress blocked and had out-of-work activities monitored.

Describing racism within the department as “insidious”, she told The Independent she would “never recommend that anybody works in the civil service".

Ebanks took the MoJ to court for the first time in 2008, saying managers had blocked access to career-enhancing opportunities and training open to other colleagues and that her work was unfairly scrutinised.

An internal probe launched soon after suggested there was institutional racism within the MoJ, according to The Independent.

After winning the case, Ebanks wrote a book about her experiences, she says with her managers’ blessing. Almost British, released in 2010, was endorsed by anti-racism campaigner Baroness Doreen Lawrence, who said she hoped it would result in institutional transformation in the civil service.

Following the book’s release, the MoJ suspended Ebanks for “bringing the organisation into disrepute” and banned her from marketing the memoir, she said. Ebanks launched her second court dispute with the MoJ in 2011 over this but lost.

Ebanks said she was called racially offensive names and had outside activities monitored following global Black Lives Matter protests in years following the 2011 case. She says complaints she made to managers were rejected.

And she said she applied for more than 40 promotions without success and was told by an experienced manager that they “couldn’t see” Ebanks thriving in a senior role.

Ebanks had various spells of sick leave for work-related stress following the second tribunal hearing, eventually receiving a written warning for poor attendance. She said she “rarely felt well for nearly two decades”.

“It’s this daily stripping away of your humanity and capacity so that, at the end, you genuinely feel that you’re worthless,” she added.

Ebanks resigned in June 2020 after almost 20 years at the MoJ, saying the “situation became intolerable”. She launched her third case against the department shortly after leaving, settling a six-figure sum last year.

“I don’t feel that justice has been served," Ebanks said. “Justice is about everyone getting what they deserve. It is about equity, fairness and a rebalancing of the scales."

Ebanks said she had felt unable to leave the MoJ sooner due to financial pressures and the need to care for her terminally ill mother.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination of any sort. All allegations are investigated fully and action taken where necessary.”

HM Prison and Probation Service launched a Race Action Programme in 2020, setting out plans to create a "fair, transparent model that values diversity and is inclusive for all".

This included measures to improve recruitment and career progression, create safe spaces for staff and review diversity and inclusion policies.

The programme was developed following a review by Labour MP David Lammy in 2017, which called for HMPPS to set new public targets for increasing the proportion of black and minority ethnic staff it employs, with a particular focus on increasing representation in leadership roles.

The MoJ said it launched a Senior Civil Service Talent Agency this year to support the progression of promising senior leaders who identify as ethnically diverse or as having a disability.

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