Call for ministerial bullying probe as survey finds bad behaviour 'widespread'

Call for complaints investigation comes as one in six senior civil servants say they have seen ministers behave "unacceptably"

A civil service union has called for an investigation into the way the civil service deals with complaints of bullying by ministers, after a survey found bad behaviour was “widespread”.

The FDA union has written to the Health and Safety Executive after its recent survey found one in six senior civil servants have witnessed unacceptable workplace behaviour by a minister in the past year – but fewer than a third of officials had confidence in the complaints system.

Of the 650 officials across 20 departments who responded to the survey, 69.3% said that if they had to raise a concern about unacceptable behaviour at work by a minister, they did not have confidence it would be dealt with fairly.

Among those who said they had witnessed such behaviour, the figure rose to 83.7% – demonstrating that “those who are most likely to need to use the process are least likely to have confidence in the system”, the FDA said in a report outlining the results today. 

Examples of bad behaviour included ministers “swearing and [being] aggressively critical with no right of reply”; “general misogyny”; and “general and pointed aggression towards civil servants in the room, including in front of external stakeholders”, according to FDA members quoted in the report.

More than one respondent said an unnamed minister or secretary of state was a “bully”, while others were “nasty and rude”. There were several accounts of ministers “belittling” staff.

The survey, which was published the same day as justice secretary Dominic Raab said he would resign if allegations that he has bullied staff are upheld, showed that “far from being isolated to one or two ‘bad apples’, ministerial bullying, harassment and sexual harassment is widespread across Whitehall”, according to the FDA.

“We believe that the deliberate choice by this prime minister (and each and every prime minister before him) to not put in place an independent process to investigate and determine whether a minister has bullied, harassed and/or sexually harassed a civil servant, has sent a powerful signal that no matter how egregious a minister’s behaviour is, there are no circumstances in which the prime minister would be prepared to relinquish their power of veto over whether the minister is even investigated,” the report added.

In a letter to HSE chief executive Sarah Albion, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the civil service was failing to comply with its legal duty as an employer to protect the safety and welfare of its staff.

“In light of the refusal of successive governments or prime ministers to introduce a system which meets those duties, corresponds with good employment practice, and will begin to address the problem of persistent, endemic ministerial bullying, we request that the HSE conducts an investigation into the matter,” he wrote.

“We hope it will assist in ensuring that civil servants are treated with dignity and respect by the ministers whom they serve.”

In his letter, Penman said the current complaints system has been “discredited by the actions of successive prime ministers” – referencing as an example Boris Johnson’s decision to back then-home secretary Priti Patel after an independent investigation found she had broken the ministerial code.

The absence of a formal and independent process of handling complaints by civil servants against ministers “complaints has a significant chilling impact”, he said.

Commenting on the survey’s findings and the call for an investigation, Penman said: "As our report makes clear, the consequences of a culture where bullying and harassment goes unchallenged is not only the toll it takes on the health and well-being of civil servants, but crucially it also undermines their ability to speak truth unto power. A third said they did not feel confident about giving frank advice. That figure rose to half among those that had witnessed unacceptable behaviour.

"Employers have a legal obligation to keep their employees safe from harm. It is clear from this report that when it comes to bullying and harassment by ministers, the civil service is failing to do so. Only the prime minister has the power to address these issues, his refusal has meant we have no choice now but to ask the Health and Safety Executive to intervene."

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