The ministerial code is ‘completely and utterly inadequate’ for regulating conduct among ministers and civil servants, a union leader has told MPs.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA civil service managers’ union, appeared alongside Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, at a parliamentary committee on standards yesterday (6 February).
They told the committee, chaired by Harriet Harman, that the ordeal faced by civil servants going through the complaints process against former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab was so bad they would not want to face it again.
The union leaders said there was “zero confidence” in how civil servants could raise complaints, and that party leaders were “failing to get their house in order” when it came to protecting employees from MPs’ behaviour.
Ministerial code reform
In 2021, the committee published a full review on the rules around civil servants’ and politicians’ behaviour, recommending tougher sanctions on those who flout the ministerial code.
Clancy said that while there had been improvements, it was important that parliament was not treated with “veneration”, meaning others failed to question MPs’ standards around ethics and behaviour.
He told the committee: “Culture starts with leadership, and not all leadership over the course of this parliament has been conducive to an ethical approach.
“If parliament makes laws for the workplace, its own approach to the workplace needs to be of the highest standard.”
When asked whether there may be a risk that complainants have “political motivations” for making complaints, Penman argued that there would be power dynamics at play in any workplace.
“Parliamentarians are not employees so can’t necessarily be compelled in the same way that employees can, but if you talk to any employer that has had a complaint about a manager there could be other motivations,” he said.
In written evidence to the committee, the trade unions pointed out that they had been asking for a formal mechanism to deal with MPs who have been arrested on suspicion of sexual or violent offences for two years.
They would like to see such MPs be prevented from accessing the parliamentary estate or undertaking parliament-funded travel unless cleared.
Penny Mordaunt, speaking as an MP witness at the committee, said there needed to be more training and awareness on how the Nolan principles of behaviour in public life play out.
“The rules are opaque, there is not really any training, no one-stop shop where people can look at these things,” she said.
“If we really want to arrive at what good looks like, we need to recognise we’re dealing with just shy of 700 ‘organisations’ – whether that’s individual members’ offices, structures in parliament, political parties and the wider landscape.
“Unless you have a well-understood appreciation of your obligations to other people and this institution, you’ll never get to where you need to be.”
She said the standards needed to be “brought to life” for people, so they had more clarity on how to act in particular situations.
The course of the current parliament has seen a number of ministers and civil servants come under scrutiny for their behaviour, including accusations of bullying made against former home secretary Priti Patel, and the suspension of Peter Bone MP after allegations he behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner with a colleague.
In the civil service, the Ministry of Defence has seen complaints of bullying rise sharply over the past five years.
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