Members of an influential parliamentary committee have rejected a call to launch a formal probe into allegations of racism at the Cabinet Office, made by the civil service’s biggest union.
PCS assistant general secretary John Moloney asked the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to take the unusual step in a letter earlier this month. He said MPs could use their powers to force the Cabinet Office to reveal the true extent of discrimination within the department following an internal investigation – details of which have yet to be shared.
But in a response to Moloney, PACAC chair William Wragg said that while the union was raising issues of a “very serious nature” that needed to be handled with the “upmost care”, the committee did not believe it was the “appropriate forum” for an investigation.
Wragg said committee members wanted to make it clear that they strongly believed there was no place in society for any form of racism, and that all employers should take proactive steps to tackle it in the workplace.
But he said select committees were not well equipped to handle individual complaints, and could not offer any redress to complainants.
“For that reason, select committees do not generally take up individual cases which might be more appropriately pursued through an employer's internal disciplinary processes or through an employment tribunal,” he said.
Nevertheless, Wragg said PACAC members could choose to raise some of the issues broached by Moloney in his letter with department top brass as part of their ongoing work.
“We will be putting questions to senior officials in the Cabinet Office in due course, where matters of departmental responses to bullying, harassment and discrimination may be raised,” he said.
“It would not however be appropriate to use these meetings, which enjoy the protection of parliamentary privilege, to make accusations about specific individuals.”
Wragg added: “The committee is hoping to receive written evidence from unions and the Cabinet Office to its ongoing inquiry into the Civil Service People Survey, and we will consider all evidence submitted in the usual manner in the context of that inquiry.”
PCS has long been voicing concerns over racism, bullying and harassment issues reported by members at the Cabinet Office. Last year it said it was considering legal action and making a referral to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in an effort to drive change.
In March, the union withdrew support for the Cabinet Office's “respect and inclusion review”, alleging it was being treated as “an exercise in damage limitation” rather than an opportunity to embrace openness and transparency.
In his letter to PACAC, Moloney said that although the review had concluded several weeks ago, its findings had yet to be shared and no details had been provided on when the report would be published.
Moloney gave a seven-point list of evidence supporting the union’s concerns about racism within the Cabinet Office. It included complaints from more than 80 members about being “racially bullied/profiled”; anonymised accounts contained in the Cabinet Office’s Lived Experience booklet; an increasing number of employment tribunals in progress or concluded in favour of staff; and performance-management data.
The letter also described the Cabinet Office as having “the worst incidence of bullying and harassment in the whole civil service” in the most recent Civil Service People Survey.
Responding to Moloney’s letter, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said the department did not tolerate bullying, harassment or discrimination in any form.
“The number of bullying claims have been falling steadily, and people are increasingly confident that cases are handled properly, but we know there is more work to be done,” they said.
“This is why last year we commissioned an independent respect and inclusion review in the department. Recommendations will build on the actions we have already taken and will help ensure we are a supportive, fully inclusive and welcoming place to work.”
The Cabinet Office added that trade union representatives and their members would receive the same report on the review as all departmental staff.