Working to make government more effective


Raab’s resignation should lead to reform of the complaints process against ministers

The review of complaints against the former justice secretary exposes deep flaws in how the government deals with poor ministerial behaviour.

Dominic Raab, former deputy prime minister, justice secretary and lord chancellor
It is not a surprise that Dominic Raab is unhappy with the events that led to his resignation, after complaints about his behaviour were partly substantiated by the investigation into his conduct.

Adam Tolley KC has completed a thorough review of complaints against the former justice secretary. But the whole process exposes deep flaws in how the government deals with poor ministerial behaviour, says Alex Thomas

It is not a surprise that Dominic Raab is unhappy with the events that led to his resignation, after complaints about his behaviour were partly substantiated by the investigation into his conduct. More curious was the prime minister’s reply to Raab’s resignation letter when he said that “it is clear that there have been shortcomings in the historic process that have negatively affected everyone involved”. 

There have indeed been shortcomings, although perhaps not the ones that Raab and Sunak imagine. A flawed process is leaving junior officials boxed in and vulnerable, and ministers exposed to unfounded complaints. From how concerns are raised, to the process of investigation, to disciplinary decisions, the system needs to be fully reformed. 

Making a complaint is seen as a sure-fire way to damage a civil service career 

There have been suggestions from Raab allies that the civil service has it in for ministers and was out to get a scalp. That is not the case. Tolley found no such evidence, praising the commitment and courage of the officials who made complaints and “did not detect any sense in which they attempted to tailor their evidence to fit with any other person’s”. The truth is that it is extremely difficult for junior private secretaries and others to register formal concerns. The strong career incentive is not to make a fuss, to show maximum resilience and to help smooth away behaviour problems rather than address the underlying issue.

That is the reason it took a co-ordinated group of junior staff to make a complaint: not a conspiracy but a systemic problem. Tolley ultimately did not endorse this ‘group’ charge against Raab. That was a reasonable conclusion insofar as allegations were unspecific and unsubstantiated. But he also dismissed it because “it was the product of discussions … involving a large number of individuals” and “was drafted ‘by committee’, with multiple contributors”. The fact that the complaint that opened the way to the investigation in the first place ended up involving so many junior staff is a symptom of the broken system. And a good system of dealing with complaints should not require “courage” to take effect. 

The way complaints are investigated needs strengthening

The Tolley report is evidently a thorough piece of work. But it only exists because Raab requested an investigation and the prime minister agreed. As we have argued elsewhere, Sunak’s adviser on ministers’ interests needs the power to initiate their own investigations. The adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, proved capable of a swift and decisive investigation in the earlier case of Nadhim Zahawi and Sunak should trust him to take the initiative to investigate genuine complaints and close down vexatious ones. 

There also needs to be a way to take the heat out of complaints before they hit either the headlines or the prime minister’s desk. Ultimately it can only be the PM who takes disciplinary decisions about ministers, but Magnus should have a lower tier committee or group to which civil servants can raise concerns, and that can look into problems and hopefully help address them before they reach Raab-like crisis point. This would de-escalate complaints and mean not everything had to race to the prime minister’s desk, lowering the jeopardy for junior officials. Permanent secretaries could then be given a more formal role in raising concerns with ministers – Tolley’s evidence showed that the existing approach of having a quiet word did not work, whether because the officials were too oblique or because Raab did not take on board the message. Senior ministers and top civil servants also need to make it absolutely clear that poor behaviour will not be tolerated and that complaints will be properly investigated and – vitally – take action to show that is the case. 

This would all help complaints get resolved more rapidly. Raab makes the justified point that accusations in some cases date back years, beyond the normal statute of limitations for such issues. A better process in which everyone involved had confidence would mean faster resolution with access to more facts and recent evidence on which to base decisions.  

Ministers and civil servants should work together to restore trust 

A better complaints system should also mean that it is used less often. The best ministers know that to get the most out of their departments they need to be challenging, ambitious and dedicated, while also being professional and positive. And the best civil servants strive to be hard-working and responsive, while always being conscious that it is ministers who take the biggest and toughest decisions. 

That system can only function if there is a high level of trust between politicians and the officials who serve them. The Raab mess has meant a complete breakdown, with leaks and acrimony amongst all parties, ending a ministerial career and leaving officials disillusioned and in some cases traumatised. Raab was a minister for eight years and it took the Tolley investigation for him to “regulate [his] level of ‘abrasiveness’”. How much better it would have been for all concerned if, as Tolley says, he had “altered his approach earlier”. It is time to move on and reform this broken system. 

Related content