Former FCO perm sec speaks up on ministerial ‘bullying’

Simon Fraser says civil service can teach MPs lessons on workplace behaviour and predicts intensification of Brexit woes

Sir Simon Fraser. Credit: CSW

By Jim.Dunton

16 Jul 2018

Former Foreign and Commonwealth Office perm sec Sir Simon Fraser has spoken of his experiences of ministers and special advisers who browbeat their civil servants.

Fraser, who was permanent under-secretary at King Charles Street from 2010 to 2015, was speaking as part of a radio discussion on Andrea Leadsom’s anti-bullying code for parliament.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster programme that while the civil service had “made great strides” he had witnessed behaviour from ministers and their unelected advisers that would not have been tolerated from civil servants.


“My experience of this over the years has been with parliamentarians who have been ministers working with civil servants, and in most cases they have behaved with great propriety,” he said.

“But I have seen some cases, to be honest with you, where ministers and indeed their special advisers have treated civil servants in ways which I thought were inappropriate – and ‘bullying’ is the word that comes to mind, in a way that would certainly not be accepted from a civil service leader, or in a modern business environment.”

Fraser, who is now managing partner at business-advisory consultancy Flint Global, did not name ministers or spads or specify which part of his Whitehall career he was describing. 

He also accepted that the civil service had not been immune from inappropriate professional behaviour within its own ranks, a problem underscored by its difficulty in improving bullying and harassment levels reported in recent Civil Service People Surveys.

“I think in the past, as in all organisations, there have been cases,” Fraser said, of bullying within the civil service.

“The civil service has made huge progress in terms of better management, inclusion and diversity. I myself was the diversity champion within the civil service for a year, and I think an awful lot has been done and there’s a great focus on it.”

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said failure to further reduce reported levels of bullying and harassment was his “one disappointment” with last year’s People Survey results.

He subsequently appointed Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport perm sec Dame Sue Owen to head a taskforce charged with the way Whitehall handles complaints from staff.

Elsewhere in the Radio 4 show, vocal Remain supporter Fraser said the government’s Brexit White Paper – published last week – demonstrated “very clearly” that there was no form of Brexit that was going to be in the interests of the country, and that proponents of a hard Brexit had “failed to come up with a credible vision and plan”.

“At some point further down the line we’re going to have to have another decision on what form of Brexit is good for the UK, or whether any form of Brexit is the right thing to do,” he said.

“If you think this week’s been a week of political crisis, you’ve got more to look forward to when we get back from the summer.”


Read the most recent articles written by Jim.Dunton - Windsurfing to Whitehall: How Alex Allan sailed through a 1980s rail strike

Share this page