The Raab-resignation circus shows we need an independent look at ministerial bullying

The UK government should follow the example of parliament, Scotland and Wales to improve the way complaints of bullying are handled
Source: Alamy

By Dave Penman

25 Apr 2023

The Raab affair and the circus of the last few days frankly leaves me cold. When you peel away all the bluster, the drama, the chaotic handling, the media feeding frenzy and the inevitable framing of this through a Brexit lens, what has been completely forgotten – by our prime minister as well as the media – is the civil servants who suffered at the hands of one of the most powerful people in the country.

That, though, is the entire problem. This whole process is about the politics, not the people. The dozens of civil servants who bravely came forward to raise their complaints, were left watching rolling news to find out their fate. Can you image how that must have felt? The risk taken to be named as a complainant to Raab and to not know if your complaint will be upheld.

All that anguish, only then to find out you have to wait another day. How could it get any worse? Well, it did. Raab was given a two-hour window in which he was free to not only defend himself, but undermine the entire process. Two hours without a single word from the prime minister or a fact being made public.

This is a minister who, let's remind ourselves, has been found guilty of bullying civil servants, of an abuse of power. A minister who was aggressive, intimidating and insulting, humiliating and upsetting, and who, according to the report from Adam Tolley KC, “went beyond what was necessary to give effect to his decision” to the extent that he “introduced a punitive element”.  A minister whose conduct was bound to be experienced as undermining or humiliating by the affected individual, and it was so experienced". Of whom Tolley concluded: "I infer that the DPM must have been aware of this effect.”

A minister, who despite his previous public protestations that he had never been spoken to about his conduct, was found to have been warned on several occasions by both by Antonio Romeo, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, and by Sir Philip Barton, permanent secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. That he denied this to Adam Tolley KC, who conducted this investigation, speaks volumes about Raab –  as does Tolley’s description of who he believed:

“Ms Romeo produced notes of these conversations, which I was satisfied were derived from her contemporaneous records. The DPM sought to challenge the reliability of these notes on various grounds. 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."

“Sir Philip Barton told the DPM in a private and informal meeting that he should not threaten officials with reference to the civil service code. The DPM disputed that any such conversation had occurred. The discussion was not minuted or otherwise recorded. On this point, I prefer the evidence of Sir Philip.”

I think we know what that last sentence means in KC language.

The prime minister’s letter to Raab read like he was retiring with honour, adding further insult to those  who suffered at his hands. Raab has also been allowed to peddle his conspiracy theories of a political plot by “activist, overly unionised [by the FDA no less] senior civil servants” without any challenge from government. Not only did he undermine the investigation but brought the whole process into disrepute by ensuring the identification of one of the complainants in the 2,000-word rebuttal in the Daily Telegraph that he was given time to concoct. That moves into victimisation territory which has, once again, gone unanswered by ministers.

"This is not about good chaps with the odd conflict of interest; it’s about the behaviours that every worker in the country can rightly expect in the workplace. Standards mean nothing if there is no effective mechanism for policing them"

I’m sure if you’re in No.10 planning the strategy to keep the warring factions in the party happy, this all worked. If you’re a civil servant who’s been bullied, it simply demonstrates where you are in the prime minister’s pecking order.

There’s one thing I agree with Raab on. He said the complaint system didn't follow normal HR practice and needs reform. No shit, Sherlock. This farce of a process not only needs reform, it needs to be professionalised and brought in to the 21st century. This is not about good chaps with the odd conflict of interest or a minor fall from grace; it’s about the behaviours that every worker in the country can rightly expect in the workplace. Standards mean nothing if there is no effective mechanism for policing them.

When we polled our SCS members, 70% said they had no confidence in the process of complaining about ministerial misconduct. Will the weekend’s clown show have done anything but reaffirm those concerns?

The Scottish Government and parliament have learned from their mistakes. It’s time the UK government did too. Deliver an independent, simple and effective process, free from political influence and then you can reasonably ask that complaints are made within a timescale. Deliver an effective mechanism for handling complaints and people won’t feel they have no option but to go public. The reality is that many of those who raised complaints were not happy with the outcome of the Tolley report, but they have no rights to challenge. They don’t even get a letter telling them the outcome.

The prime minister has now said ministers will review the process – that is to be welcomed. But to stop any of these mistakes from being repeated, any new procedure has to centre on those who are subject to abuses of power. They need agency in a process which is, after all, supposed to be about protecting them.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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