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Home Secretary: Allegations of Bullying

Volume 807: debated on Monday 2 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to publish the report of their investigation into allegations of bullying of officials by the Home Secretary.

My Lords, the Government take complaints relating to the Ministerial Code seriously. The Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts in line with the code. To protect the interests of all involved, the Government do not comment on the specifics of this kind of ongoing process. The Prime Minister will make any decision on the matter public once the process has concluded.

My Lords, justice delayed is justice denied. Surely for civil servants in the Home Office, past and present, this long delay of eight months is intolerable. In accord with natural justice, can the Minister now confirm that no one with a personal or political interest will have had any involvement whatever in the independent investigation into the behaviour of the Home Secretary, the report or the timing of its publication, and that that will clearly rule out any involvement by the Prime Minister?

My Lords, I can certainly confirm that the process is independent, but I can only repeat that, to protect the interests of all involved, the Government do not comment on the specifics of this kind of ongoing process. I repeat that the Prime Minister will make any decision on the matter public once the process has concluded.

My Lords, the last inquiry into the conduct of a Cabinet Minister in 2017 took one month. This has taken eight months so far, although at the beginning, Michael Gove said:

“It is vital that this investigation is concluded as quickly as possible.”

Does my noble friend agree that it is fair to neither the complainers nor the Home Secretary for this matter to last so long? Can he also confirm that the separate case being brought against the Home Office by Sir Philip Rutnam for constructive dismissal is not responsible for this delay as that case is not to be heard until September of next year?

My Lords, I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend so far as the timing is concerned. However, it is not possible to comment on an ongoing process. What I can say in relation to the other matter he has raised is that he will know that they are separate legal proceedings and that, unfortunately, I cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings either.

My Lords, given the difference in their respective roles, it is not at all unusual for tensions to arise from time to time between Ministers and officials. Indeed, this is healthy if kept within reasonable bounds. Can the Minister assure the House that, whatever the outcome of the current case, the Government will foster between Ministers and officials a culture of robust debate carried out with courtesy and respect on both sides? Does he agree that such a culture is not advanced by the airing of differences in the media?

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble and gallant Lord has said, in particular that all civil servants must feel free to give independent and open advice, and that Ministers should respect all those who give such advice.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Prime Minister has undermined this process by declaring his full confidence in the Home Secretary from the outset? Is it also not the case that the Prime Minister has form, as we saw with the Russia report, with delaying politically inconvenient reports? How can this process be independent if the Prime Minister is the final arbiter?

The process is independent. The Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts, in line with the Ministerial Code, and the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, Sir Alex Allan, has a role through providing further independent advice to the Prime Minister. So far as the process is concerned, I regret that I must repeat that I cannot comment on that while it is continuing.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young, in response to a previous answer from the Minister, said that the code is an honour code, implying that it is up to the Minister concerned to take responsibility and to resign in the case of a serious breach. Last month, the Cabinet Secretary said to a Commons committee that the Prime Minister is the ultimate arbiter. That seems deeply inappropriate in the current conditions. Does the Minister not think that there is merit in the First Division Association proposal that an independent arbiter, with status outside government, should be the final arbiter in these cases?

My Lords, I stated just now that there is an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, and that is Sir Alex Allan, who has a role. I have also studied the Cabinet Secretary’s evidence to PACAC on 22 October. He said what I have said, which is that, in the interests of all those involved in the process,

“We are not giving a running commentary on the process.”

That is a quotation from the Cabinet Secretary and I agree with him.

The Minister keeps saying that this is an ongoing process. The review was completed eight months ago. I do not know whether the Prime Minister is a very slow reader or whether, as Laura Kuenssberg has said, this has simply been parked. If it is the latter, can we take it out of the underground garage, please?

My Lords, the Government take bullying very seriously. In 2018, the Civil Service undertook a review of the arrangements for tackling harassment and misconduct within the service. The Ministerial Code is clear that

“harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated.”

That is the position of the Government.

My Lords, no wonder trust in the Government is plummeting. In 2019, the Prime Minister updated the Ministerial Code and in the foreword he wrote:

“There must be no bullying and no harassment. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document—integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest—must be honoured at all times.”

There are no qualifications; there should be transparency at all times. Those are his own words. Can the Minister explain in this case how those precious principles can be honoured in the absence of the publication of this report?

My Lords, I refer again to what the Cabinet Secretary said about the process. On bullying, I underline again what I said earlier. The Civil Service helps those who wish to make complaints. In 2019, we ran a cross-departmental “speak up” campaign to encourage individuals to come forward and report poor behaviours. A further campaign is proposed for this year.

My Lords, is not the irresistible inference both from the delay and from the answers that the Minister has given that the Government have something to hide? What is it?

My Lords, one of the main deterrents to reporting workplace bullying is the fear of retribution by the perpetrator. One way of facilitating the reporting of such incidents is through an independent hotline outwith the normal line management structure of the organisation. Having just attended the excellent parliamentary webinar course on Valuing Everyone, in which an independent hotline is paramount, can the Minister say whether the great departments of state provide such independent whistleblowing hotlines?

My Lords, the noble Lord has made an important point. As I have indicated to the House, full assistance is provided to those who make complaints. There is also a facility to make complaints without the disclosure of names. I agree with what the noble Lord has about the Valuing Everyone training, and I confirm to the House that all Cabinet Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have either taken Parliament’s important Valuing Everyone training or have made arrangements to do so.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed and we have dealt with all the supplementary questions.