Ministerial bullying complaints process should be 'simpler and fairer', Dowden says

Raab inquiry should not leading to “letting up in the high standards” expected of civil servants, deputy PM adds
Oliver Dowden appears on Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg to speak about the Raab report. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

The process of reporting complaints against ministers should be "simpler, fairer and less complex", deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden has said.

Dowden said last week's report into Dominic Raab’s behaviour showed a need to look at how bullying claims are handled – and that the justice secretary's resignation should not lead to “letting up in the high standards” expected of civil servants.

There is currently no formal process for officials to submit a complaint about a minister's behaviour – something unions have been urging ministers to change for some time. Dowden did not say whether he felt the current state of affairs is unfair towards ministers or civil servants.

Speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg programme yesterday morning, Dowden said Raab did the “right thing” by stepping down as deputy prime minister and justice secretary after an independent report by Adam Tolley KC found he behaved in an “intimidating manner”.

But he said the report showed there is "a need to look at our processes" around how complaints are handled. “That is why we will be looking at it to see whether we can make it simpler, fairer and less complex," he said.

Dowden – who was appointed DPM on Friday – said that “we all work hard to be as professional as we possibly can” in a job that brings “highly pressured situations".

He said: “I think anyone who has worked to the top level of government – and I've been fortunate enough to serve as a cabinet minister – knows that we're in highly pressured situations. 

“And I certainly don't want the outcome of this to be, and it certainly won't be the case to me, that there will be any letting up in the high standards I expect of civil servants.” 

He added that ministers should work "contructively" with officials and said: “What I would not want to be the outcome of this is that there is some kind of diminution in the ability of ministers to expect the highest standards because in the end senior civil servants and senior ministers are united in their goal of serving the British people."

Dowden had earlier told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme that “most civil servants” are committed to serving the British public, describing ministers as working “very hard to try and serve the British people in the best way that they think possible".

The report found three instances since September 2021 where Raab’s feedback to senior civil servants was overly critical – particularly during his time as justice secretary – including that one submission on parole reform was “utterly useless” and “woeful”.

It also suggested he had referenced the civil service code in a way that amounted to a "threat of unspecified disciplinary action”.

Raab had challenged the findings of the report in his resignation letter on Friday, telling prime minister Rishi Sunak that he believed that they were "flawed". He said that "in setting the threshold for bullying so low, this inquiry has set a dangerous precedent" that could encourage "spurious" complaints against ministers from civil servants. 

Labour’s shadow pensions secretary said that there is “no problem with being demanding” but accused Raab of being a “failing minister”. 

Jonathan Ashworth told the same Sky programme that “the report found that Dominic Raab was intimidating, aggressive, and it's not just that he was a bullying minister, he was also a failing minister. Failing to deal with the backlog in the courts, failing to deal with problems in the criminal justice system.” 

Meanwhile, Dowden also said the home secretary will be given a “discretion” in the illegal migration bill to examine and potentially ignore the orders from the European Court of Human Rights that would prevent deportations. 

It comes as Suella Braverman wrote in yesterday';s Sunday Telegraph  that the bill, due in the House of Commons again this week, will “now give ministers broad discretion whether to comply with interim measures in individual cases. This is a crucial power.” 

Dowden told Sky that “the home secretary will be given a discretion and ability to look at the circumstances of that order from the ECHR" and consider factors such as the timing of an order, but suggested that it would not provide a "carte blanche to overrule rulings." 

An order from an ECHR judge last June prevented the first deportation flight planned to Rwanda shortly before it was due to take off, prompting fury in the Conservative party.

PM Sunak's decision to harden the government's stance on the ECHR in relation to small boats crossings came after pressure from a significant number of backbench Tory MPs, who were threatening to table an amendment that risked defeating the government.

Caitlin Doherty is a reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared

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