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The Dominic Raab claims expose the trust breakdown in government

Escalating leaks are a disaster for the vital trust between ministers and civil servants.

Dominic Raab
Dominic Raab is in the firing line over allegations of bullying and intimidating civil servants in the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign Office.

Urgent action is needed to address concerns about bad behaviour in Whitehall. Escalating leaks are a disaster for the vital trust between ministers and civil servants. Alex Thomas says it is in everyone’s interests to sort out a broken complaints system 

This week Dominic Raab is in the firing line over allegations of bullying and intimidating civil servants in the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign Office. Last week it was Gavin Williamson, who has not denied telling a civil servant to “slit your throat”. In 2020, Priti Patel’s most senior civil servant resigned from the Home Office over what he said was her bullying behaviour. 

Controversy about ministerial conduct is not a party political matter. During the last Labour government Gordon Brown was accused of temper tantrums. And secular saint Winston Churchill was told by his wife Clementine that “one of the men in [his] entourage” was concerned about the great man’s “rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner”. Her warning supposedly had the desired effect. However, as leaks about the conduct of figures in the current Conservative government gather pace and multiply, it is becoming ever-more urgent to overhaul Whitehall’s complaints system. 

Fair treatment is the price of civil service discretion 

A privilege of being a civil servant is that you can work closely with the ministers taking big decisions, help inform and advise them, and by implementing their decisions shape the future of the country. The civil servant’s side of the bargain is to do the job well by working hard and having the skills to operate effectively. It is also – vitally – to not reveal privileged information and never, outside the most grave whistleblowing circumstances and having exhausted alternative mechanisms, to leak. 

That last injunction has clearly broken down when it comes to the behaviour of some ministers and the response of some civil servants. Whether because civil servants have come to the end of their tethers, because of indiscipline or another reason we do not know. But some officials at least have suggested that they do not have confidence in the formal process of investigation. The growing list of leaks, in part apparently coming from civil servants who have experienced or witnessed poor behaviour, show a system that is broken. 

When trust inside government breaks down everyone loses 

Ministers should be passionate about doing what are immensely important jobs, and frustration is understandable if work is not done to their satisfaction. Civil servants should be held accountable for producing high quality advice and implementing decisions professionally. The fact that most civil servants, across successive governments, get on pretty well with ministers and enjoy working for strong leaders shows that determination and high standards are entirely compatible with respectful relationships. We should also be careful not to read too much into personality clashes where people end up shifting jobs because the relationship just is not working, or the fact that some ministers are just more or less enjoyable to work for.  

But nobody should be bullied. And the power balance between ministers and their officials means that it is the former who have the whip hand (literally, in Williamson’s case, given his choice of desk furniture) over the latter. Leadership involves more than exacting standards and the exercise of power. However, if an environment develops in a minister’s private office where ministers, civil servants or special advisers think their behaviour will be passed on to the media rather than addressed privately, that creates an environment of intense suspicion and insecurity, corrosive for the relationship between ministers and civil servants. Bad relationships lead to bad decisions; a breakdown in trust means that we all lose. 

Only a properly independent complaints procedure will restore confidence 

‘Quiet words’ to ministers have their place – it is no bad thing for a permanent secretary, or the cabinet secretary, to intervene when complaints are made. Sensible disciplinary procedures in any organisation should include the opportunity to resolve problems informally. But if concerns are not resolved, and especially if behaviour is bad enough to relay to a journalist, then the problem is severe enough to trigger a more formal complaint procedure – and indeed Raab has now received two formal complaints and asked for them to be investigated. 

Ministers are not well served by allegations being made that are not addressed. The civil servants who may have been treated badly are also being let down. When relationships break down and allegations of unprofessional behaviour are made there needs to be a way of resolving the problem. 

Perhaps that does not always need to mean escalation to the prime minister. It is a big burden for a junior civil servant to decide whether to call in the PM’s ethics adviser. But if the ‘quiet word’ from a permanent secretary has not worked, then departments need a route of escalation beyond the civil service. One of the many lessons of the Sue Gray partygate investigation is that such a process is not independent or fair on the official who is given the task. And ultimately, if problems are unresolved, then that leads to the prime minister, as the sole appointing and disciplinary authority for ministers. 

So as we have repeatedly argued, the prime minister must urgently appoint a new ethics adviser to oversee investigations under the ministerial code. The prime minister’s independent adviser needs more powers, to be able to instigate their own investigations and to publish the results quickly and in full. They also need the resources to investigate complaints properly. Civil servants and the public deserve to have confidence in the system for overseeing ministerial behaviour. 

The best thing would be for ministers to take heed of Clementine Churchill’s wisdom that “with terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and – if possible – Olympic calm”. But even then there must be a better system in place so that everyone has the confidence that it could, if needed, be used. A fair and proper procedure will start to rebuild shattered trust between ministers and their officials. 

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