19 May 2021

Cabinet Office: Racism, Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination

PCS has been engaged in a campaign in the Cabinet Office (CO) regarding the alarming number of cases of racism, bullying, harassment and discrimination (BHD) in the department.

The issue is considered even graver given that the Cabinet Office sets the standards for other government departments and is supposed to set an example for others to follow.

A presentation made within the Cabinet Office made by anonymised Black, Asian and minority ethnic Civil Servants captured the lived experience of racism and micro aggressions suffered by these staff and their fear of career suicide if complaints were lodged. One contributor, for example, shared an occasion where they disagreed with the white chair of a meeting who sought to put him in his place by referring to him as “boy”. PCS has documented at least one occasion when a racist descriptor was used in front of a black staff member- nothing was done about the complaint.

The Cabinet Office People Survey in 2019 showed that 15% of staff said they had been bullied and 14% of staff said they had been discriminated against. These figures are 4% and 3% higher than the Civil Service median. In response the Permanent Secretary at the time, John Manzoni said "Unfortunately Bullying and Harassment, and Discrimination scores have increased once more. As a department the People Survey shows that Bullying and Harassment is at 15%, and Discrimination at 14% (increases of 2 and 1 percentage points respectively). This is extremely concerning and something we must take steps at every level to address."

The 2020 scores did show a reduction in bullying by 5% and discrimination by 4%. However completion rates of the survey in CO fell by 6% and of the staff reporting they felt bullied or discriminated against, only 40% reported it (down 14%) and there was an increase of 10% of those who felt punished for reporting such instances, i.e. the statistical reduction is not due to improved management interventions but is due to reduced reporting for fear of punishment.

Of 111 personal cases PCS has represented members in over the last two years, 48% are identified as racism or Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination.

PCS has sought to engage with the department at all levels. This included a meeting with the Permanent Secretary and PCS’ General Secretary Mark Serwotka and Assistant General Secretary John Maloney.  Subsequent to this meeting there was an exchange of correspondence.

In one letter the General Secretary wrote: “It’s completely unacceptable that the Cabinet Office has failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. The lack of significant improvements for an issue of this gravity just isn’t good enough. It’s a damming indictment on this key government department that we are having to look at going to the EHRC and other actions, because of their failure to tackle racism and discrimination. We hope that the Cabinet Office will now commit to make their workplaces the inclusive places their staff have been crying out for.”

Effectively, however, the union has been stonewalled and an atmosphere of denial pervades the senior management team, including the Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm. CO has refused to issue a statement of zero tolerance for racism claiming that racism cannot be entirely eliminated in the department. So it seems that the Cabinet Office does not even aspire to become a place where racism is absolutely NOT tolerated and will be rooted out.

Alex Chisholm has also rejected PCS’ call for an independent review, contenting himself with some tinkering of policy and procedures whilst doing almost nothing to change the culture within the department. Recently, in a case that has a potential element of racism within it, the department had to reveal that it only had one investigator available who had any training in dealing with such complaints.

Other examples of the strange world of the Cabinet Office include the exclusion of two PCS members from “The Race Board”. The department appeared to be content for senior white rep to attend but when PCS proposed having a Black or Asian rep attend instead, the committee blocked their participation.

Is the Cabinet Office institutionally racist? Macpherson, in his report on the police after the Stephen Lawrence case, defined institutional racism as: "The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin." This has been the experience of many PCS members and staff. A number of them have taken out Employment Tribunals which will add even more pressure on the self-denying Cabinet Office senior management.

PCS members have sought to engage constructively with the Cabinet Office on the issue of Racism, Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination. Regrettably, the department refuses to acknowledge the depth of the problem it has. PCS has now been left with no alternative but to try to flush this issue into the open by engaging in media work, working with MPs and considering how to bring external assistance to bear in this ongoing campaign.