A union representing senior civil servants said it “cannot be right” that ministers do not face an independent complaints process in the wake of the Home Secretary bullying furore.
During an evidence session with MPs, the FDA was asked about the ministerial code following the Prime Minister’s decision to disregard the findings of Sir Alex Allan, his adviser on ministerial standards, in order to back Home Secretary Priti Patel last year after she was embroiled in bullying complaints.
With the union currently involved in a judicial review in a bid to “overturn” Boris Johnson’s ruling that Ms Patel did not breach the code – despite Sir Alex, who resigned following the Prime Minister’s decision, finding her behaviour constituted bullying – it meant officials could not touch on the case directly during their appearance in front of the Standards Committee on Tuesday.
Speaking in broad terms, FDA assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge said the lack of an independent system to judge complaints against ministers had “completely destroyed” the trust and confidence of civil servants.
Ministers are usually expected to resign if they breach the ministerial code but Mr Johnson, who is its arbiter, judged that Ms Patel had not fallen foul of the rules, allowing her to keep her Cabinet position.
Ms Leversidge told the committee: “We do have views about the ministerial code and the operation of that.
“I think that, speaking in broad terms and not speaking about the specifics of that (judicial review), one of the things is that it cannot be right that ministers are held to lower standards of behaviour than the civil servants with which they work.
“If a civil servant behaves in a particular way, they can be dismissed as a result of that behaviour but for a minister there is no accountability for their behaviour. That cannot be right.
“It also cannot be right, and it is fundamentally a problem, that if you have an individual who is an MP who in Parliament behaves in a certain way, the staff in Parliament would have the ability to be able to have a complaint independently investigated from beginning to end and have a sanction and judgment determined independently.
“But if that same MP walked up the road into their Whitehall department as a minister and behaved in exactly the same way, the civil servants don’t have any means by which to progress a complaint – that can’t be right either.
“And the impact of all of this, of not having a proper process in place to deal with ministers, is … we’ve seen trust and confidence completely destroyed.”
FDA general secretary Dave Penman, when announcing the court action last month, said a survey taken of its members who are most likely to work with ministers found that nearly 90% said they had no confidence in the ministerial code as a mechanism for dealing with bullying and harassment by ministers.
Following the publication of Sir Alex’s report, Ms Patel issued an “unreserved, fulsome apology” and said there were “no excuses” for what happened.
A report in the Times suggested however that the Prime Minister is considering removing Ms Patel from the Home Office after she “failed to sound sufficiently contrite” following the publication of the inquiry into her behaviour, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove tipped as a possible replacement.