Dominic Raab was warned about his behaviour towards officials during his time as foreign secretary by the department’s top civil servant, who then informally reported his concerns to the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team.
The Guardian understands that Simon McDonald, the then permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, spoke to Raab on several occasions during his tenure about how he treated staff in his private office and during meetings.
Sources claim that while none of the officials wanted to make a formal complaint because they felt that working for the department was a privilege, they decided to inform McDonald about the alleged bullying. Several were said to have left earlier than they had planned as a result of Raab’s alleged behaviour.
Whitehall mandarin McDonald, now a crossbench peer, was said to have had several informal conversations with the head of the propriety and ethics team (PET) at the Cabinet Office between 2019 and 2020 about the issue. One government source said that the minister “was definitely on their list”. McDonald declined to comment about the allegations.
The fresh claims pile further pressure on Rishi Sunak, who robustly defended his deputy prime minister and justice secretary to reporters on the flight to the G20 in Bali, rejecting claims from multiple civil servants that he bullied staff.
Sunak, who has already been criticised over his judgment after promoting other controversial ministers including Suella Braverman and Gavin Williamson, said: “I don’t recognise that characterisation of Dominic and I’m not aware of any formal complaints about him. Of course, there are established procedures for civil servants if they want to bring to light any issues.”
A spokesperson for Raab said: “Dominic had frequent discussions with his permanent secretary at the Foreign Office about how best to run the department and ensure that it delivered to the highest standard in challenging circumstances such as during Covid.”
There are now bullying allegations from Raab’s time as secretary of state at three different government departments including the Foreign Office, the now disbanded Department for Exiting the European Union, and his current berth at the Ministry of Justice.
Dave Penman, the head of the FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, has written to the prime minister warning him that officials have “little confidence” in the existing ministerial complaints process and calling for “urgent reform” of the system.
In his letter, seen by the Guardian, he wrote: “There is little confidence that raising a formal complaint will result in action. The result is a toxic work culture that will impact on the ability to deliver good government for the public, blight the careers and lives of those that suffer from bullying or harassment and ultimately cast a shadow over the entire government.”
The FDA is calling for Sunak to appoint an ethics adviser, a role which has now been vacant for five months since Lord Geidt quit amid concerns over Boris Johnson’s role in the Partygate scandal. Downing Street said the recruitment process was under way.
Penman added: “We need a system that carries the confidence of both civil servants and ministers, can deal with complaints quickly and effectively, and provides outcomes that the public can ultimately trust.”
In an interview with LBC’s Andrew Marr, McDonald was asked whether the characterisation of Raab as somebody who could bully, and around whom bullying could happen, was a plausible one, he replied: “Yes.”
He added: “Dominic Raab is one of the most driven people I ever worked for, he was a tough boss. Maybe they are euphemisms, but I worked closely with him and I didn’t see everything that happened.”
An HR survey of 20 people working in Raab’s private office in 2019, leaked to ITV News, showed that eight officials reported personal experience of bullying and harassment, while 15 had witnessed seeing someone else being bullied or treated unfairly. The person or persons doing the bullying were not identified in the survey.
The prime minister suggested that could not be considered proof of poor behaviour by Raab. “My understanding is that these surveys are annual and relate to the overall work environment, not to individuals,” he said. The Foreign Office declined to comment.
A former colleague said: “Raab worked hard and scrutinised his submissions far more than most ministers. That could be hard for officials who wanted a different answer to what they got. But he didn’t bully, he didn’t demean and he didn’t lose his cool. He was straight when stuff wasn’t good enough.
“Dom wanted the FCO to up its game responding to issues like the repatriation of UK nationals from overseas during Covid or the Harry Dunn case. Some people, especially those who didn’t like Raab in the first place or had an axe to grind, won’t have liked that.”
It follows the Guardian’s report that Raab’s return to the Ministry of Justice prompted offering officials the opportunity to move from his private office because of concerns about his behaviour.
The Observer then revealed that concerns were raised about his treatment of officials during his time as Brexit secretary in 2018, with claims a “serious expression of concern” was made to the Cabinet Office by a senior official in the department.
Raab was one of Sunak’s most high-profile and earliest supporters in the leadership contest, taking on difficult broadcast rounds in his defence and acting as a key attack dog against Liz Truss. His actions in the leadership campaign led to him being sacked from the cabinet, but he was restored to his previous post at the MoJ by Sunak.
Downing Street said the prime minister had full confidence in Raab, adding that people in public life should treat others “with consideration and respect” and the government would stand by those principles.
A No 10 spokesperson added: “There are established procedures by which civil servants can raise complaints. These processes allow allegations to be looked and considered with due process and a fair hearing. We are not aware of any formal complaint having been raised.”
Despite the stream of allegations, Raab will face MPs when he stands in for his party leader during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday against Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, who has called for an independent investigation to be launched.
“It is anti-bullying week, but instead of holding the bullies to account this prime minister is cowering behind them. Rishi Sunak clearly knew about Dominic Raab’s reputation when he reappointed him to his cabinet,” she said.
“Rishi Sunak put the Tory party before the country and cut a series of grubby deals to avoid facing a leadership contest, his cabinet is overflowing with ministers embroiled in misconduct allegations. An independent investigation into Dominic Raab must urgently be launched.”
The Liberal Democrats have written to the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, to ask for a list to be published of ministers with “credible allegations of bullying” made against them.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We have no record of any formal complaints.”