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Rishi Sunak needs to sort out his government’s ministerial behaviour problem 

A succession of unresolved allegations about poor ministerial behaviour shows that Rishi Sunak needs to sort things out.

Rishi Sunak delivers his speech on the steps of Downing Street
Rishi Sunak delivers his first speech as PM on the steps of Downing Street

Ministers and civil servants have for too long colluded in the myth that the relationship between them is unique, including in the standards of behaviour and leadership expected. Alex Thomas says Rishi Sunak needs to acknowledge the problem and take steps to fix it

Ministers and civil servants are fallible human beings, working in a flawed environment, trying to achieve complicated objectives with limited time, resources and power. They are not unique. The same is true for teachers, nurses and doctors, corporate leaders, business owners and more. And in all these fields leaders fall short of the highest standards of behaviour more commonly than most would like to admit. 

Just in the last few weeks an independent report found the London Fire Brigade to be “institutionally misogynistic and racist” with a “toxic culture”. An interim report into the Metropolitan Police said that its “misconduct system is not delivering in a way that … the public would expect it to”. The NHS and the Home Office are reeling from weekly failures and scandals, many related to poor leadership. Over the summer the former chief executive of Carillion was personally fined for the company’s failures. Corporate crypto-collapse dominates the financial pages. Reaching further back #MeToo scandals exposed personal failings in male leaders in particular. The right response has been to acknowledge the problem and to respond. In government, however, it has become the damaging norm to delay action until media pressure or the weight of allegations proves too hard to resist. 

Efforts to ‘manage around’ ministerial behaviour have failed 

There is perhaps no such thing as a normal organisation, and each sector faces its own problems. But there is such a thing as normal standards of behaviour. Government’s particular pressures include a tendency for civil servants to treat ministers as, in my colleague Dr Catherine Haddon’s phrase, ‘child gods’: simultaneously putting them on an elevated pedestal while trying to shape their movements and decisions. The status of a minister, and the fact that they direct, but do not manage, civil servants also creates tension.  

All the while ministers and their senior officials are operating with complaints procedures that are opaque and inadequate. Processes should be better advertised – in the latest civil service people survey only 68% of civil servants said that they knew how to raise a complaint under the civil service code – and there should be more training and support available to ministers and civil servants. This in part explains why stories have damagingly leaked as civil servants felt they had nowhere adequate to turn. 

Only the prime minister can sanction or dismiss a minister. This gives any allegation made against a minister hugely high stakes for the adviser or civil servant involved. A junior official will normally feel extreme reluctance to take action that escalates a complaint to the PM. And conversely if a minister is subject to a mischievous or vexatious complaint, the lack of a proper process means the allegation speeds its way to the prime minister’s desk leaving a cloud over the blameless. 

A succession of unresolved allegations about poor ministerial behaviour shows that Rishi Sunak, just over a month into his time as prime minister, needs to sort things out. The most important thing is to recover confidence in the complaints process for civil servants and anyone else working inside government. 

The government needs to learn from the House of Commons’ painful failings 

There is a useful case study close to home for Sunak to consider. It was not long ago that the debate was focused on the behaviour of MPs and their staff in parliament. Some made the claim that being an MP was a unique job (which it is), and one which is constitutionally impossible to subject to independent regulation (which it is not).  

Following the demonstrable failure of an internal ‘Respect’ scheme – bearing a striking resemblance to the current civil service arrangements – parliament has tried to address the problem by introducing an Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS). This involves the ICGS appointing an independent investigator to look into allegations, a filter via the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, for the most serious cases, an permanent independent panel appointed by the House of Commons to consider sanctions and appeals. MPs’ constitutional proprieties are protected as the most serious sanctions are ultimately determined by a vote in the House of Commons. 

There is still a long way to go to improve behaviour in parliament, and it is early days, but at least everyone who works there now knows what the deal is and how to make formal complaints. There has been a dramatic uptick in complaints, including historic allegations, raised and resolved, which suggests that the parliamentary authorities have made a start.  

In government there also now needs to be a much clearer process. The Civil Service Commission is the imperfect route to escalate complaints about recruitment and civil service behaviour, but there is no such course for ministerial actions. The prime minister should remain the final decision-maker on ministerial appointments and dismissals, but the investigation and decision-making architecture for civil service complaints about ministers should be much stronger. The government can learn from parliament’s difficult lessons by introducing credible and trusted independent investigators for specific cases, and should also consider establishing a single permanent independent panel to look into complaints and make recommendations to the PM about sanctions in each case as needed. This structure should sit under a prime ministerial ethics adviser with strengthened powers. 

Sunak should take serious allegations seriously 

Finally, the prime minister and everyone involved at the top of government should give some thought to how they got into this mess over ministerial conduct. Dominic Raab maintains that he has done nothing wrong, as did Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel, but there is no workable process to address the allegations. That leaves Sunak – like his predecessors – on the back foot on standards issues. 

The prime minister has assumed that there is no case to answer until a public debate forces action or the evidence has become overwhelming. The need for a formal complaint to be raised is already a failure of care – problems should ideally be spotted and addressed before it gets to that, not least to stop bad behaviour becoming ingrained. Raab, like Patel, Williamson and anyone else, should be judged – at least in private – not only against whether a formal complaint has been upheld, but about whether they show the leadership expected of ministers in very senior positions. 

To do otherwise is not good for victims of bullying, for ministers themselves, for the quality of cabinet leadership or for a healthy debate about ministerial behaviour. It is also bad politics. Better to take an allegation seriously and then see it dismissed, or dealt with through one of the sanctions short of dismissal now available under the ministerial code, than to adopt the Boris Johnson playbook of minimising, ducking and weaving before having to concede and sack a wrong-doer anyway. 

One of the positive things that has come out of the investigations into the Met, the London Fire Brigade, and other institutions that are close to losing public confidence, is that their leadership seems to have accepted that there is a problem. Rishi Sunak, in responding to the allegations against Raab, has appointed a leading lawyer to look into the specific allegations. But whatever the facts behind the growing run of stories about ministerial behaviour, there is clearly a problem and Sunak should acknowledge it. In responding he should ask himself what he’ll do next time, and the time after that – and then take a deeper look at what’s been going wrong in government and how to sort it out. 

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