Former civil servant says ‘racism in Cabinet Office’ forced her to resign

<span>An employment tribunal hearing against the Cabinet Office and senior civil servants began on Monday but the case was withdrawn on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: georgeclerk/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
An employment tribunal hearing against the Cabinet Office and senior civil servants began on Monday but the case was withdrawn on Wednesday.Photograph: georgeclerk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A former senior civil servant has said in court papers that “a hostile racist working environment” in the Cabinet Office meant she was “forced to resign”.

Rowaa Ahmar, who has now withdrawn a discrimination case against the Cabinet Office, said that “the racism within the Cabinet Office appeared to be unrelenting and systemic” and claimed that she was frozen out of ministerial meetings after complaining about it.

Ahmar, who is of Egyptian and French dual heritage, was head of policy at the illegal migration taskforce, which was convened to tackle the arrival of small boats across the Channel. She said that she was unwelcome at discussions about sending people to Rwanda because she was not onboard with the “racist ultra-hostility” of their policy proposals.

An employment tribunal hearing against the Cabinet Office and senior civil servants began on Monday but the case was withdrawn on Wednesday. Ahmar had lodged two claims arguing she was subject to “direct discrimination and harassment on the grounds of her sex and race” as well as “victimisation”.

The Cabinet Office said her claims were “completely unfounded” and noted that Ahmar had withdrawn the case with no payment made.

Ahmar said that at the taskforce she tried to focus small boats policy on criminal gangs and “to add constructively to the debate and to move it away from prejudice and blame”, but managers “were onboard for the racist ultra-hostility which a boomerang (‘no returns’) policy would involve, and they saw me as [an] unwelcome visitor to their taskforce”.

She disagreed with civil service directors who she said viewed the “ultra-hostile environment” as “practical, necessary and gratifying”.

Ahmar said in her claim that she first took a secondment from the Treasury to become a chief of staff ahead of Cop26, before being ordered to leave the climate summit early after complaining of bullying and harassment.

In an internal investigation it was found that a “bullying, harassment and discrimination” complaint she brought against a manager was “partially upheld”, with behaviour that “amounted to bullying”, but that there was “no malice” and it was an issue of communication.

After being sent back early from Cop26 in November 2021, Ahmar took up a role at the illegal migration taskforce in January 2022.

It was while at the taskforce that she said she was increasingly blocked from meetings and then told that her secondment from the Treasury was ending abruptly for “poor behaviour”. She said they told her it was for bullying someone who wished to remain anonymous.

Ahmar said in the papers: “I believe that speaking up against racism was a career death sentence at the [taskforce].”

She believes her HR file was “red-flagged” in the new role as she had brought a race and bullying, harassment and discrimination complaint. The Cabinet Office argued in documents that her behaviour in the first six weeks at the taskforce was “negative and problematic, leading colleagues to feel overburdened, disrespected or undermined” and “received concerns” that the behaviour “amounted to bullying”.

The tribunal judge, Richard Nicolle, ruled on Thursday that details of the documents could be published after a successful application by news organisations led by the Guardian.

In court papers she accused the head of the civil service, Simon Case, of showing a “lack of support” and “cold-shouldering” her allegations of racism and harassment after she resigned.

She said in the claim she was “harassed, discriminated against, victimised” and that other white staff were not subject to the same treatment.

The cabinet secretary and two of the other named officials – Alex Chisholm, the permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office, and Sarah Harrison, the chief operating officer – were all accused of being “untrustworthy” over how they dealt with her complaints. Tribunal documents show Case and the two other officials argued they played only “minor roles”, and the judge accepted this.

She said she had enjoyed her time at the Treasury and excelled there but, quoting from her resignation letter in the papers, Ahmar said she had a “terrible experience at the Cabinet Office”, where she claimed she was “racially bullied and victimised, and worked in a very hostile working environment”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “These allegations are completely unfounded and the Cabinet Office has always firmly denied all of the claims in this case. We were prepared to robustly defend them in court.

“The claimant has withdrawn all of these claims and we have agreed to that. No payment has been made, including in relation to the legal costs incurred.”

Ahmar’s solicitor, Lawrence Davies, of Equal Justice solicitors, said in a statement afterwards: “The claims raised important issues of public interest about alleged sexism and racism at the Cabinet Office. The department who polices the standards of the entire service and plays a central role in advising ministers.

“The claimant believes that senior management must begin to become fully accountable for their conduct. The claimant bravely brought these matters to tribunal and hoped to inspire senior management and HR change at the Cabinet Office by her action. She did not wish to litigate but was left with no other option. She stands by her allegations of race and sex discrimination as set out in her claim.”