Civil service morale 'collapsing' amid Raab bullying inquiry, union chief says

PCS union head calls for justice secretary to be suspended, as Raab repeatedly refuses to discuss his behaviour
Photo: Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

The prime minister’s decision not to suspend Dominic Raab while bullying complaints against him are being investigated has contributed to a “collapse in morale” in the civil service, a union leader said.

Mark Serwortka, general secretary of PCS, said yesterday that Raab should be suspended if he will not voluntarily “step aside” as justice secretary and deputy prime minister until the investigation is completed.

“He should step aside, or he should be suspended while the allegations are investigated, and it’s time the government realised that the way they are being seen to treat their workforce causes a collapse in morale and causes people to really question whether they can play a role in public service,” Serwotka told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

He said officials’ trust had been undermined by previous incidents including Boris Johnson’s handling of the 2020 investigation into bullying allegations against Priti Patel. Johnson said he had "full confidence" in the then-home secretary and ruled that she had not broken the ministerial code, despite the inquiry finding evidence she had bullied staff.

Serwotka said: “While Dominic Raab is going through a process, we know that Priti Patel was found to have bullied civil servants in the Home Office yet she got away with hardly a sanction.

“We know that Suella Braverman broke the ministerial code, yet now she issues emails accusing her own workforce of blocking her Rwanda policy,” he continued. The home secretary briefly lost her job in October after it emerged she had sent official documents via her personal email account, before being reappointed shortly afterwards. She came under fire again this month after an email was sent in her name attacking “activist” civil servants.

The union chief added: “And now we have Dominic Raab with not one complaint, but numerous complaints.

“The point I would make is if one of my members had an allegation like this against them, they would be suspended.”

The prime minister has faced a number of calls to suspend Raab until Adam Tolley KC has completed his inquiry, which is believed to be drawing to a close.

Last month, Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain urged Sunak to "finally show some backbone" and suspend Raab until the investigation had concluded. 

"That is what would happen to someone facing such serious allegations in any other workplace. The current position is completely unsustainable," she said.

Raab has repeatedly refused to answer questions about his behaviour in recent days, despite fresh reports including anonymous officials telling Sky News he had "ruined people's lives" with "coercive behaviour". Raab has previously denied all allegations of bullying.

He later told Sky News it would be a "breach of the rules of the inquiry" to comment on the allegations, adding: "As a matter of professional integrity, I’m not going to do that.”

Similarly in an interview on GMB last week, Raab said it was “contrary to the rules of the inquiry for me or anyone else to be going and giving media reports”.

Appearing on GMB to talk about plans to hand tougher sentences to killers with a history of coercive or controlling behaviour, Raab was asked by GMB host Kate Garraway if he found it “challenging” being accused of “coercive behaviour, the very language [in] some of these laws you’re tackling”.

He told Garraway: “I’m not going to comment on anonymous reports… Can I just say, any equivalence being suggested by you or anyone else between the kind of murder cases we’re talking about, and anything I’ve been accused of, let alone doing, is frankly pretty unconscionable."

After clarifying that she was not “remotely” drawing equivalence between the two, Garraway noted the calls for Raab to "step aside" until the inquiry is completed, and asked if he knew when that would be.

“I don’t, and I won’t comment on the inquiry,” Raab said.

The justice secretary also declined to answer questions put to him by the Lords' Justice and Home Affairs Committee at a hearing last week.

Labour peer Sharmishta Chakrabarti referenced the leaked results of the Civil Service People Survey, in which a third of MoJ private office staff said they had been bullied or harassed in the previous year. 

Baroness Chakrabarti said: “I know you are currently under investigation... you've got a great deal of responsibility. In the interim, you are still in post. You've used the word ‘humility’, I think, two or three times. So I have to ask whether anything is currently being done in the department to improve staff morale, and just perhaps change the culture or improve people's sense of self and worth and ability to do this vital work?”

Raab did not answer the question, saying it would be “improper” to discuss matters relating to the bullying inquiry.

“By and large, the relationship is very effective with ministers across the board,” he added.

“We've also got a very ambitious agenda… and the overwhelming majority relish that,” he said, adding that his previous experience as a government lawyer had enabled him to “appreciate the equities and the value of the civil service”.

“I work very closely with Antonio Romeo, my permanent secretary. We've got all the processes in place... to make sure that folk who want to make a complaint can in the right way.”

He went on to say that the coronavirus pandemic had been “very difficult” for courts and HM Prisons and Probation Service staff because of social-distancing rules and other pressures – before being cut off by Chakrabarti.

Pressed on whether he had “reflected and done anything different” following the complaints against him, Raab reiterated that it would be “improper” to discuss the inquiry.

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