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Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the nation as he announces his resignation outside 10 Downing Street, on July 7, 2022. (Photo: Dan Kitwood via Getty Images)
The next prime minister was today urged to dramatically strengthen the checks and balances on the behaviour of ministers.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union that represents senior civil servants, has written to both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.
He wants them to commit to reforming the ministerial code - the standards of conduct expected of ministers.
The code tells ministers they must not bully or harass civil servants, but Penman argues there is no effective mechanism for policing that.
He also wants them to ensure the ethics adviser - the so-called Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests - is actually independent.
Truss and Sunak. (Photo: Handout via Getty Images)
Ministers are not employees like civil servants and therefore not covered by the same procedures when it comes to bullying and harassment.
The Ministerial Code is the only mechanism by which a complaint against a minister can be investigated.
However, an investigation can only start with the consent of the prime minister and the Independent Adviser cannot launch their own probes.
Similarly, only the PM can determine whether a breach of the code has occurred - an issue that led to the resignation of a former adviser, Sir Alex Allen.
Essentially, despite it purporting to be an independent process, the buck stops with the prime minister - the person who is usually friends with and has employed those very ministers under scrutiny.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life - established by John Major - has long called for properly independent investigations and a more independent process for appointing an ethics adviser.
Despite slipping standards being a major factor in Boris Johnson’s downfall, the issue has barely featured in the leadership debates.
Penman said civil servants deserved to be treated with “dignity and respect” and that without them government would cease to function.
He warned that confidence in the process had “evaporated” following delays to investigations, refusals to acknowledge wrongdoing and the resignation of the last two Independent Advisers.
“Warm words on standards of conduct in the Ministerial Code have no meaning if they are not backed up with an effective mechanism for policing them,” Penman wrote.
“The prime minister is also minister for the civil service, and I am asking you to acknowledge the lack of trust there is in a system that has been shown time and again to prioritise political interests over those of civil servants who have been bullied or harassed.”
Penman called on them to send a clear message to ministers from “day one” that the highest standards of conduct will be expected from ministers and enforced robustly.
There is currently not an Independent Adviser in place after Lord Geidt quit, which means if there is a complaint about a minister from a civil servant they effectively cannot be dealt with.
The campaign teams for both Truss and Sunak have been contacted.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.