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The civil service complaints process is at best flimsy and at worst negligent

Andy Frain

Andy Frain | Dods Monitoring

4 min read

Responsibilities and obligations between the civil service and Government need to be made far clearer and be fully formalised, writes Dods Monitoring's Andy Frain. 

In British public life, there is a storied history of public resignations designed to grab headlines. In recent years everyone from Boris Johnson to Rafael Benitez has quit their jobs in spectacular fashion, deliberately exposing internal tensions to the world in an attempt to steer public opinion in their favour or bring a spotlight on injustice.

Those ranks were further swelled last month, when former Chancellor Sajid Javid resigned from the Cabinet and made an eyebrow-raising speech where he criticised certain aspects of the Government’s internal approach.

It could be tempting therefore to consider last week’s resignation of Sir Phillip Rutnam, the now former Permanent Secretary to the Home Office, as a normal part of public life – the result of an understandable clash in personalities and direction.

However, this would be wrong. Rutnam’s resignation is no PR stunt and its associated fall out hints at the disjointed informal process underpinning the relationship between Government and senior civil servants.

The civil service is meant to be “dull by design” and its officials are generally expected to avoid generalist media appearances wherever possible.  As such, news of a senior civil servant suing the Government on the claim they were forced out of their job, deciding to go public with the reasons, and effectively accusing one of the nation’s most high-profile politicians of lying, was always bound to make the front page.

Unsurprisingly, the story gained further traction online where much of the discourse has divided along political lines. Those already predisposed to support the Government have leaped to Patel’s defence, describing her as a decisive and effective Minister. In contrast, opponents of the Government have instinctively sided with Rutnam.

Bullying allegations are not a football to be kicked around for political gain, and external observers immediately taking sides does little to bring effective resolution to the conflict. Patel should neither be condemned nor exonerated without further investigation, both in Government and in the court of public opinion,

Monday afternoon saw the Government bow to external pressure from the FDA Union to hold an independent inquiry into allegations of bullying in the Home Office, but this is merely a sticking plaster on a substantial issue. It would be unrealistic for a full-scale inquiry to be called any time Government and the Civil Service reach a similar impasse in future, and the fact that one was necessary in the first place is indicative of a flawed system.

Stunningly, there is no formal complaints system in place for permanent secretaries like Rutnam, except to ask the Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill to raise their concerns with the Prime Minister. 

Arguably the most notable aspect of the entire fallout is that the current system has survived for so long – the concept of the Cabinet Secretary going into a darkened room and having a “quiet word” with the relevant parties seems like something that belongs in an episode Yes Minister.

In any relationship at this level, conflict is an inevitable occurrence, but an ad hoc system of quietly moving permanent secretaries elsewhere within the civil service only serves to absolve either the Minister or the Permanent Secretary of responsibility for their actions.

The process is at best flimsy and at worst negligent. Rutnam felt compelled to go public with his claims because the conventional recourse available to most in his situation was unavailable. This is unsustainable, and both the alleged victims and those being accused deserve a more open and structured process.

This may require a formalisation of the relationship between Government and senior civil servants, more akin to a conventional employer-employee relationship. Those critical of Patel have pointed to alleged breaching of the Ministerial Code, but the Code is vague on the topic of personal conflict.

Under the code, if an allegation of a breach is made “the prime minister…may ask the Cabinet Office to investigate the facts of the case and/or refer the matter to the independent adviser on ministers’ interests”. One may argue that this creates an imbalance, wherein the Cabinet Office leads an investigation and reaches a conclusion, but ultimate power lies with the Prime Minister – who is under no obligation to agree with their findings.

If a public fallout like the Rutnam situation is to be avoided going forward, responsibilities and obligations between the civil service and Government need to be made far clearer and be fully formalised. Until then, such instances will continue to be played out in public, to nobody’s benefit.

To download the complementary report lookahead click HERE.

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