The prime minister must voice his support for civil servants who were affected by Dominic Raab’s bullying behaviour, or risk them becoming “unfairly vilified” amid the fallout from the investigation that led the justice secretary to resign, a former top official has said.
Former Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald said it was imperative for Rishi Sunak and other ministers to stand up for civil servants as accusations of foul play are levelled at them, because impartiality rules prevent them from responding.
Allies of the former justice secretary have suggested the complaints that were investigated by Adam Tolley KC were a coordinated attempt to force Raab out of the job. Tolley said in his report he found the witnesses to be “sincere and committed civil servants, with no ulterior agenda”.
There have also been a number of attempts to characterise civil servants who objected to Raab’s behaviour – which was found at times to be “aggressive”, “intimidating” and “insulting” – as incompetent or unwilling to take reasonable feedback.
In his resignation letter, Raab said the investigation had set a “dangerous precedent” by placing the threshold for what was considered bullying “so low”.
McDonald, who retired in 2020, said the debate over the report’s findings that has raged in the press in recent days was “unfair” because civil servants cannot respond. He said this was his motivation for speaking out as a retired civil servant.
"Because I worked for the civil service for 38 years. The characterisation given by Mr Raab I think is flat wrong,” he added.
Asked if he was concerned that civil servants might be “unfairly vilified” without the PM’s backing, McDonald said: “That is a possibility because one aspect is the silence of the civil service – that a debate can rage about them without any servicing civil service participation.”
McDonald told Sky News' political editor Beth Rigby that Sunak “knows the civil service, he is surrounded by civil servants in No.10 and the Cabinet Office, he knows their ethos, he knows their quality.”
"So I hope that the prime minister and other ministers do publicly recognise that,” he said, noting that the PM is also the minister for the civil service.
McDonald has previously said that Raab had been a “tough boss” when he was foreign secretary between 2019 and 2021, and that it was plausible he could bully staff.
Based on his observations, McDonald said yesterday: “I think [Raab] was in control of his behaviours, I think he could have changed his behaviours, and he chose not to change his behaviours.”
He said Raab should apologise but that he was not surprised that the former minister "doesn't think he did anything wrong".
"He thinks that a certain management style is not only acceptable, but, in his words, professional. I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding,” he said.
He said that when ministers are "frustrated when action doesn't happen as quickly as they want", it would be reasonable for them to have “a perfectly civil conversation with a senior official, with a permanent secretary, about why things are not happening”.
"You do not need to intimidate or humiliate or threaten staff in order to shift the system.”
Raab 'resisted' attempts to change his behaviour
McDonald also repeated his previous assertion that he had spoken to Raab about his behaviour when they were both at the Foreign Office after junior officials raised concerns.
"[I talked] to him about his impact, the impact of his behaviour on the people around him, and I did that, they were not easy conversations,” he said.
"But I wanted him to see how he was treating the people around him was affecting the outcomes, was affecting his productivity, his delivery… and he consistently resisted that."
Tolley's investigation found that McDonald's successor as Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton and Ministry of Justice perm sec Antonia Romeo had also spoken to Raab about his treatment of staff.
Tolley said Raab had denied any such conversations took place, but that the officials' evidence that they had done so was more compelling.
Romeo, for example, provided contemporaneous notes from her conversations with the then-justice secretary, in which she said she had raised “concerns about his tone and behaviour” towards civil servants.
“I was not convinced by those challenges and did not consider that Ms Romeo would have had any reason to manufacture or manipulate the content of these notes,” he said.
Tolley said he inferred from Romeo’s evidence and Raab’s denial that the conversations took place that “he did not accept that there was any legitimate basis for such regulation of his behaviour”.