Two civil service unions have raised concerns that the changes to the ministerial code brought in by government yesterday are insufficient to reassure staff that harassment claims will be fully investigated, sanctions enforced and historic complaints dealt with.
New clauses in the ministerial code, which sets out the standards of conduct expected of ministers, spell out for the first time that bullying and harassment “will not be tolerated”. They also preclude ministers from holding official overseas meetings without the knowledge of their department.
The changes follow a string of scandals in Theresa May’s Cabinet, which led to the sacking of former international development secretary Priti Patel over her secret meetings with Israeli officials during a family holiday, and of former defence secretary Michael Fallon over harassment allegations.
The former first secretary of state Damian Green was also forced to quit after he was found to have breached the ministerial code by making misleading and inaccurate statements about his knowledge of pornography found on his computer in 2008.
The first clause of the new code now states that ministers are expected to “maintain high standards of behaviour” and that they “should be professional in all their dealings and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect”.
It continues: “Working relationships, including with civil servants, ministerial and parliamentary colleagues and parliamentary staff should be proper and appropriate.
“Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the ministerial code and will not be tolerated.”
The FDA, which represents senior civil servants, dismissed the additions as “a few warm words” that will not sufficiently change the system to protect staff. The union also criticised No 10 for failing to consult civil servants’ representatives on the changes.
Naomi Cooke, FDA assistant general secretary, said: "Everyone deserves to feel safe and respected at work, but this behind-closed-doors tinkering with the ministerial code will do nothing to reassure civil servants that there's a proper system in place to protect them from harassment and bullying.”
She pointed out the lack of detail on who will investigate allegations of poor behaviour, and on how sanctions will be enforced.
“There is nothing, for example, on what will happen to a minister who fails to treat a member of staff with ‘consideration and respect', or any sense that ministers will be subject to the kind of fair and transparent investigation process that any good modern employer would have in place,” Cooke continued.
“As a trade union representing thousands of public servants, we know that there’s a real crisis of confidence in the way complaints of harassment and bullying are handled. Just 14% of public servants in a recent FDA survey said they were confident a complaint against someone not directly employed by their organisation – such as a minister, contractor, party employee or adviser – would be properly investigated and lead to sanctions.”
Prospect, the trade union representing civil service specialists, welcomed the changes but said it was seeking an “urgent meeting” to clarify a range of issues including how historic complaints will be dealt with.
Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, said: “The amendments drag the code into the late 20th century making it clear that the behaviours expected of ministers are exactly the same as those expected of other employees in a well-run modern workplace, irrespective of rank or status.
“It is important that staff, where they do have concerns, have the confidence to raise them. This is not just about words in the code - it is about processes which underpin them and the culture within organisations.”
Another revised section of the ministerial code, which has been dubbed the “Priti Patel clause”, precludes ministers from holding meetings overseas with ministers or foreign government officials without a private secretary or embassy official being present.
It continues: “If a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion or on holiday – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event.
“Ministers should seek guidance in advance from their permanent secretary, who should consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in cases of doubt.”