Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s new independent ethics adviser must have a role in the ongoing investigation into allegations of bullying faced by justice secretary Dominic Raab, a top union official has said.
Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service leaders’ union the FDA, said the current investigation into Raab’s conduct would have its conclusions called into question without the involvement of newly-appointed independent adviser Sir Laurie Magnus.
Penman said civil servants’ confidence in the complaints system had been “fatally undermined” by the outcome of the 2020 investigation into then-home secretary Priti Patel. It found Patel had bullied her staff and breached the ministerial code, but then-prime minister Boris Johnson did not accept the findings.
Penman said Sunak would “undermine confidence” in the independence of the probe into the conduct of Raab – who is deputy prime minister and lord chancellor as well as justice secretary – if Magnus was not brought in.
Sunak appointed employment barrister Adam Tolley KC to investigate the allegations against Raab in November, at a time when the PM had yet to appoint a replacement for former independent adviser on ministers’ interests Christopher Geidt, who quit in June last year.
Tolley’s remit requires him to report to the PM on his finding of facts, and the PM will determine whether Raab has breached the ministerial code. Magnus, who was appointed in December, has no role.
But in a letter to Sunak this week, Penman has called on the PM to bring in the new independent adviser. He said failing to do so would “undermine the integrity” of the process and risk politicising the investigation’s findings.
“I fully recognise that it is for you alone to determine whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code and the consequences for a minister,” Penman wrote.
“However the role of the independent adviser in determining on those facts and advising you in relation to the allegations and on the ministerial code is critical in providing confidence to civil servants and the public when it comes to matters of integrity and propriety.”
Penman flagged the example of former independent ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan’s investigation into Patel’s conduct, which prompted Allan’s resignation.
He said that despite Johnson’s decision to back Patel in the face of his independent adviser, the ability of the adviser to make their determination and advise the prime minister was “critical”.
“Whilst then prime minister Boris Johnson was free to ignore that advice, which he ultimately did, the politically independent adviser was able to determine on the facts and make public those conclusions,” Penman said.
In relation to Raab, Penman said the FDA had no concerns about the integrity or conduct of Adam Tolley. However, he referenced a BBC interview with Sunak last year in which the PM would not directly confirm that he was unaware of any bullying allegations against Raab – only formal complaints.
“It is the lack of any independent input into the decision-making following his investigation that is concerning us,” Penman said of Tolley’s remit.
“This is an issue that can easily and quickly be resolved by asking the independent adviser to play the role he would in any other investigation, including the one just completed into the former Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi,” he said.
“I hope you will recognise how important it is for the civil servants who have made the tremendously difficult decision to make a formal complaint to have confidence in the outcome of this investigation.”