Cabinet secretary Simon Case has been asked to take “immediate” steps to protect civil servants from rogue ministers, following the resignation of prime minister Boris Johnson’s second standards adviser in less than two years.
Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service leaders’ union the FDA, said the departure of Lord Christopher Geidt as independent adviser on ministers’ interests earlier this month had shut off a crucial avenue for grievances about conduct to be raised.
In addition to advising the prime minister about ethical issues, the independent adviser has responsibility for investigating breaches of the ministerial code – such as allegations that home secretary Priti Patel bullied staff, which were upheld by Geidt’s predecessor Sir Alex Allan in 2020.
In a letter to Case, Penman said that the absence of a standards chief could “materially impact the confidence of any civil servant in raising a complaint” against a minister, potentially involving allegations of bullying or sexual harassment.
Ahead of Case’s appearance before members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this afternoon, Penman said “immediate” action was required while No.10 decides who – if anyone – will replace Geidt.
“The independent adviser on ministers' interests plays a crucial role in ensuring civil servants have confidence that any investigation will be thorough and critically, independent,” he wrote.
“Indeed, both sir Alex Allan's and Lord Geidt's actions in discharging their duties whilst holding this role have reinforced this.
“In the absence of a replacement, I am writing to ask what arrangements are being put in place to ensure that a similar degree of confidence can be given to civil servants, should they be faced with the difficult decision of whether to raise a complaint about ministerial misconduct.”
The independent advisor role was vacant for five months after Allan quit in November 2020. Penman noted that the gap in cover had arisen at a time when there had been no suggestion of changes being made to the role.
He said the independent investigation of complaints was vital for both public confidence and that of officials.
“I would be grateful if you could ensure that this is factored into any temporary arrangements that are put in place, pending the prime minister’s decision on a replacement,” Penman wrote.
“These are not theoretical issues but live ones for civil servants and I would be grateful if you could give this matter your immediate attention.”
Lord Geidt initially gave scant detail about the precise reason for his decision to quit – other than that he had been placed in an “impossible and odious position” in relation to a potential deliberate breach of the ministerial code by Downing Street.
In a subsequent letter to PACAC, he suggested that his concerns were broader than an issue relating to the World Trade Organization and steel tariffs, as Downing Street claimed.