‘Dehumanising’ criticism of civil servants blamed as bullying complaints rocket at Defra

Department insider says “blob” and “activist” criticism has created “atmosphere of intimidation”
Defra HQ. Photo: William Barton/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

18 Aug 2023

Bullying complaints at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have rocketed in the last year.

In 2022-23, there were 28 complaints made by officials to the department alleging bullying, compared to five in 2021-22 and less than five in 2020-21, according to a Freedom of Information response published by Defra.

A Defra insider said criticism of civil servants had contributed to this five-fold rise.

The Defra official told CSW that ministers "using dehumaning language, such as referring to civil servants as 'the blob' and calling officials who were just trying to do their job 'activist civil servants'" had created an "atmosphere of intimidation" and "undermined" officials' work.

In March, the Conservative Party sent an email to supporters in home secretary Suella Braverman's name criticising an "activist blob" including civil servants, with party chairman Greg Hands later apologising. Ex-government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has also used "blob" as an attack-word to blame civil servants for the government decision to abandon plans to axe thousands of EU laws by the end of this year.

Both prime minister Rishi Sunak and cabinet secretary Simon Case have recently defended the civil service from such criticism. Case said any minister labelling civil servants "blob" would be a commiting an act of "self-defeating cowardice", while Sunak said he did not recognise the characterisation of officials.

As well as the impact of this kind of language, the Defra insider said officials have also been "working themselves to breaking point" as a result of growing workloads.

Exiting the EU has had a "massive impact" on Defra civil servants' workloads, according to the official: "85% of our legislation was derived from EU Law and teams were expected to review this alongside their normal work without additional resources." They said dealing with avian influenza has also led to officials needing to do more work outside of normal hours, while ministerial changes have also had an impact, with each new minister meaning another priority to work on.

Defra has had four secretaries of state in the last four years, compared to eight in the previous 18 years.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told CSW: “We’re very concerned about the rise in bullying at Defra and are committed to representing our members there.  

“Ministers referring to civil servants as the ‘blob’ are setting a bad example that others are quick to follow. Rather than criticising our members, managers should be praising them, supporting them and giving them a fair pay rise to help them through the cost-of-living crisis and beyond.  

“Since Brexit, their workload has vastly increased without additional resources, and they are unfairly bearing the brunt of managers’ frustrations.”

The latest People Survey figures, from 2022, show the proportion of Defra officials who have experienced bullying or harassment has fallen from a high of 11% in 2019 to between 7 and 8% in the following three years.

Reporting levels have meanwhile risen since a dramatic dip in 2020. Almost half  (48%) of Defra officials who responded to the 2022 survey said they had reported their experience of bullying or harassment compared to 44% in 2021 and 39% in 2020 and 51% in 2019.

The Defra source told CSW  the similar levels of bullying in People Survey scores in recent years may mean "rather than an uptick in bullying cases, we may be looking at an increase of people getting to the point of feeling that they have to report it".

A Defra spokesperson said: "Bullying and harassment has no place in our organisation and all allegations are taken extremely seriously, investigated promptly and always dealt with in the strictest confidence.

“While these numbers are still very low we are not complacent and recognise there has been an increase in recent years. That’s why we have made sure there are numerous ways colleagues can raise concerns and ran our ‘Speak up’ internal campaign to demonstrate the seriousness with which we will respond to any form of bullying or harassment, which has been fully supported at the most senior levels.”

 

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