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Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP: Resignation Letter

Volume 829: debated on Thursday 27 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action, if any, they are considering following the comments made about civil servants by the Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister dated 21 April.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has been clear that the Civil Service is vital to the work of the Government. The Government greatly value the work of civil servants who, together with Ministers, are working to deliver for the British people. The Prime Minister has accepted the resignation of the right honourable Dominic Raab, the former Deputy Prime Minister, following the findings of Adam Tolley KC, in a published exchange of letters.

My Lords, I welcome much of the Minister’s reply, but does she accept that the emerging pattern we see is not civil servants conspiring against their Ministers? The pattern documented is of Conservative Ministers bullying their staff, with three examples in the current Parliament, two of which led to resignations and one of which should have led to a resignation.

I cannot accept the conclusion of the noble Lord. Of course, as the Prime Minister said, we need to learn from these cases

“how to better handle such matters better in future”,

and a credible complaints process needs to have the confidence of Ministers and civil servants alike. Work is under way on that. Ministers and civil servants work together on difficult issues every day and, in the main, very constructively.

My Lords, as someone who headed four separate departments, all under Conservative Governments, in my experience overwhelmingly the Civil Service was loyal and gave exceptional advice to the Government. Would it not be better to look at the quality of special advisers, who sometimes exhibit neither of those qualities?

Having worked as an adviser, a Minister and a civil servant, I would say that the constitution has these different parts. Political advisers are important and helpful. In most cases, they work well with the Civil Service.

My Lords, is it not important to recognise that Ministers have no power to select, reward, promote or demote officials working for them? Likewise, officials should not have the power effectively to dismiss Ministers for whom they work, least of all by making anonymous complaints against them. I was very fortunate, like the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that my officials were a joy to work with throughout, but some Ministers have perceived some officials to be reluctant to implement their policies and have had to try to find ways of dealing with that, and some officials have perceived Ministers’ responses trying to get them to do that too abrasive, demanding and rude. I sympathise with those who had to duck telephones thrown by Gordon Brown or to deal with Richard Crossman, who said in his diaries that when he found officials reluctant to do his will:

“I bullied them and made a fool of them in front of others, quite often their subordinates”.

I suspect such an approach was counterproductive. Does the Minister agree that it is up to the electorate or elected superiors to get rid of Ministers who cannot deliver, not officials?

Ministers are of course part of the process of democratic election. I agree with much of what my noble friend said.

My Lords, in his letter of resignation, the former Deputy Prime Minister said that the inquiry into his actions

“set a dangerous precedent for the conduct of good government”,

and set the “threshold for bullying” too low. The Prime Minister in response said that we should learn to manage these matters better in future. Does the Minister agree that the threat to good government comes not from the inquiry but from bullying Ministers, that the threshold which needs to be raised is that of ministerial behaviour, and that the lesson to be learned is that Ministers should behave themselves and not bully their staff?

Ministers are required to behave themselves and do behave themselves. The code includes the statement:

“Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated”.

Complaints are investigated, as we have been discussing.

In his report, Mr Tolley took care to anonymise all the complainants. Reading the report, it was not possible to see who had complained. In his resignation letter, the former Deputy Prime Minister mentioned a Gibraltar negotiation and then someone leaked the name of the British ambassador to Spain to the Telegraph. Will His Majesty’s Government condemn that leak?

I read the Tolley report. He took great care on this matter. Where there are specific allegations, it can be very difficult to guarantee anonymity in a process like this. It is important for fairness that the full details of the complaint are made. Although the Deputy Prime Minister stepped down and there were findings of concern, there were also areas where Mr Tolley took a different view.

The Minister is choosing her words carefully, and she has our sympathy for that, but the extraordinarily poor grace of Mr Raab’s resignation letter means that this case has failed to clarify the standards expected of Ministers.

“The conclusion of the Raab inquiry has done nothing to help other ministers who misunderstand what professional behaviour looks like avoid getting into the same position”.

Those are not my words but the words of the Institute for Government. Is it not time that the Government introduced an independent adviser with the power to initiate investigations? Should there not also be an independent review of the effectiveness of the Ministerial Code?

I should point out that in his letter, Dominic Raab, who did some good things as a Secretary of State, said:

“I am genuinely sorry for any unintended stress or offence that any officials felt”.

An independent adviser, Mr Tolley, was asked to conduct the inquiry because at that time there was no ethics adviser, as the noble Baroness knows. Sir Laurie Magnus has since been appointed. He can initiate, but he has to get the approval of the Prime Minister. As we discussed on Tuesday, the arrangements have been changed and the process shows that, where there is need for an inquiry, an inquiry takes place.

My Lords, looking around, I see many noble Lords who have had more successful ministerial experiences than mine, but none who lasted 21 years. My experience is that you do not get the best out of civil servants by shouting at them. There is no organised conspiracy to frustrate the will of Ministers, but some Ministers may see as obstruction civil servants doing their job by pointing out the adverse consequences of certain policy options. If we have a review of the complaints procedure, can we debate it in this House so the plethora of ex-Ministers, ex-civil servants and others can contribute to that review?

I think almost no Secretary of State has been as successful as my noble friend, and he has helped here as well by joining the Front Bench. What we debate in this House is a matter for the usual channels, but we are getting on and work is under way on the complaints process.

My experience, having spoken to a number of Ministers, is that a couple of them have said things like, “You won’t get this past the Civil Service”. What does that mean?

I do not dare to speculate on what the thing in question was. The Civil Service has a fundamental principle of political impartiality so, in considering proposals, that is something they have to look at. If something is improper, then the good civil servant—I used to be one—will point that out to the Minister of the day, and it might be that that is what was meant. Obviously Ministers are advised by civil servants on matters of policy, and it is clear that civil servants sometimes disagree with Ministers.

I once asked a senior civil servant who were their favourite Ministers to work with. In confidence, they said Nicholas Ridley and the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson—which in itself is an interesting combination. I asked why, and they said it was because you knew where you stood with them and they were decisive. I think that is the definition of a good Minister. I have never met a civil servant who was disloyal, but I have met people who say that they would rather not receive direct instructions via a spad and would rather speak to a Minister. I think that is not necessarily because of the quality of the spad, but because of the method of avoiding talking to civil servants. Does the Minister agree?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. These are the sort of points that come up when we debate these things. Good Ministers decide clearly, and civil servants and political spads provide advice, which can be helpful. Spads can indeed be helpful to civil servants, as I remember.