Sunak urged to overhaul ministerial complaints system amid Raab allegations

Civil servants have "little confidence" complaints about bullying will lead to action, union says
Asked about Raab's behaviour, Sunak said there are “established procedures" for civil servants to complain about ministers. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Rishi Sunak must overhaul the system for complaining about ministers’ behaviour to address a “toxic” work culture in which civil servants are afraid to raise complaints, the head of the FDA union has said amid a slew of allegations against Dominic Raab.

In a letter to the prime minister yesterday, Dave Penman said there has been “increasing scrutiny over the conduct of ministers and, in particular, allegations of bullying – behaviour that has no place in a modern workplace”.

"It can come as no surprise to you that civil servants have little confidence in the current system for addressing bullying and harassment, given the experience of the last few years,” he wrote.

"Accusations are making their way into the public domain at a later date, rather than being dealt with at the time.”

Penman’s letter follows a series of reports about alleged bullying of civil servants by justice secretary and deputy prime minister Dominic Raab. The Guardian reported that private office staff who had been traumatised by his behaviour were offered transfers out of the department when he returned as justice secretary last month, having lost the role in Liz Truss’s reshuffle a few weeks prior. The Sun alleged that Raab had thrown tomatoes across the room during a “tirade” at MoJ staff earlier this year, and the Mirror reported that he was known as “the incinerator” because he “burns through” staff so quickly.

Former Foreign Office permanent secretary Simon McDonald said today that staff in the department had been “scared” to go into Raab’s office when he was foreign secretary because of his “controlling” behaviour.

Lord McDonald told Times Radio he had spoken to Raab because people felt “demeaned” by his behaviour. “When I worked for him, Dominic Raab was not aware of the impact of his behaviour on the people working for him, and couldn’t be made to see that impact,” he said.

Sunak told reporters yesterday he did not "recognise that characterisation" of Raab as a bully and said there were “established procedures for civil servants if they want to bring to light any issues".

Penman did not address allegations about Raab’s conduct directly in his letter, but said FDA members had made the union aware that concerns about some ministers “have been raised and are known about within the civil service”.

He said officials had “little confidence that raising a formal complaint will result in action".

"The result is a toxic work culture that will impact on the ability to deliver good government for the public, blight the careers and lives of those that suffer from bullying or harassment and ultimately cast a shadow over the entire government," Penman wrote.

“We need a system that carries the confidence of both civil servants and ministers, can deal with complaints quickly and effectively, and provides outcomes that the public can ultimately trust.”

He said the current system of regulating the ministerial code fails to meet these standards.

Penman urged Sunak to appoint an independent adviser on ministers' interests – a position that has been vacant since Christopher Geidt resigned in June – but said the PM must go further and “urgently reform” the entire system.

He urged Sunak to use recommendations from government’s public standards watchdog, as well as recent reforms made to the parliamentary complaints system and the Scottish Government, to create a “transparent and independent system” that civil servants, ministers and the public can rely on.

This time last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life released a report calling for improved procedures around public standards, a better system for ensuring the rules are followed, and greater independence for those regulating compliance. Among other things, it said the standards adviser should have the authority to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code without the prime minister’s go-ahead.

The adviser's inability to instigate investigations is a key "flaw" in the existing system, which "relies on the PM being willing to instigate investigations and act upon the advice given", Caroline Slocock, a former civil servant , told CSW.

Sir Alex Allan, Geidt's predecessor, resigned in 2020 after then-PM Boris Johnson did not accept his finding that Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code. Allan's investigation found the then-home secretary had treated civil servants in a way that  "could be described as bullying", but Johnson said he had "full confidence" in her and did not take any disciplinary action.

"The test for Sunak, especially given his commitment on becoming PM to integrity, professionalism and accountability at all levels, will not just be whether he appoints a new adviser but also whether he is willing to ask them to investigate individuals or issues that may embarrass him and act on the results," Slocock, who was the first female No.10 private secretary in between 1989 and 1991, said.

"Those actions would demonstrate that he does have ethics, unlike the mere words he said outside No.10. Ideally, he would also accept the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and make the process more independent."

In his letter, Penman said the government is “yet to respond” to the CSPL’s recommendations “in a meaningful way”.

In January, CSPL chair Jonathan Evans said the government had been “careless” in upholding standards and that it needed to take the rules around behaviour and ethics “much more seriously".

“At the moment, the government system is very weak in comparison to where we believe it should be,” Lord Evans said.

Writing for CSW about the CSPL report last year, Penman said then-prime minister Boris Johnson had shown "shows little interest" in ceding any powers on the ministerial code, "even if the result is damaging public confidence in the ethical standards of his government".

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