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Tuesday 18 February 2020

Standing up for civil servants

By Dave Penman
The FDA has too often been a lone voice defending civil servants and the start to 2020 is proving no different. General Secretary Dave Penman explains why he will never stop speaking out on behalf of members, and why all public servants deserve to be treated with respect.

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John Wellings

Two years ago, at our Annual Delegate Conference, I made a commitment to stand up for civil servants amid unprecedented attacks from politicians and certain sections of the media. Unfortunately, in the years that followed the FDA has too often been a lone voice defending civil servants and this year is proving no different.

Over the weekend, news broke in the Observer that the FDA is pursuing an unfair dismissal case on behalf of Sonia Khan. Khan was a special adviser at the Treasury who was sacked by Dominic Cummings and then marched out of Downing Street.

At the time of her dismissal, the Prime Minister alone had the authority to dismiss her, so in the employment tribunal we will expect both Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings to give evidence under oath as to the reasons for dismissal, the process they applied and the evidence they used to make that decision.

Special advisers, like all public servants, deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. The Prime Minister is minister for the civil service and therefore his actions, or the actions of those to whom he delegates power, have implications for the entire service. No one can be exempt from their obligations to treat employees fairly and lawfully.

We are now beginning to see the shape the government will take following its victory in December’s election. It may take a little longer to understand the consequences of some decisions coming from Number 10, but it’s clear that advisers – one in particular – will have an increasingly prominent role, with ministers losing some decision-making power in process. Following the Cabinet reshuffle, I warned in a Huff Post UK blog that government is too big and complex to be run by a few individuals in No.10, and that ministers need authority to run departments and civil servants need clarity over decision-making.

While this kind of media coverage may not always seem like it makes a difference in and of itself, it gives us a vital opportunity to shape public discourse, hold the government to account and, ultimately win for you, our members.

Indeed, last week we saw a huge win in the House of Commons, with the House Commission accepting the FDA's proposal for a Parliamentary Tribunal body as the best option for a fully independent system to tackle bullying and harassment claims made against MPs.

Make no mistake, this win was years in the making and hard won by the staff who bravely spoke out and dedicated members putting in the hours behind the scenes. However, the catalyst that forced MPs into action was the continued media coverage which meant they were unable to hide from their failings.

In the week leading up to this decision, I appeared live on BBC Newsnight to once again call for an independent process to be introduced as well as writing an article for Times Red Box. It is a testament to the strength of public feeling that this ended up the second most read Red Box article that week – an achievement immediately topped by our Assistant General Secretary Amy Leversidge, whose article on our success was the most read the following week.

Alongside a live appearance on Sky News, Amy’s comments were also picked up by the BBC, the Guardian, the i newspaper and Politics Home, capping off a marquee week for the FDA in holding MPs to account.

We will not stop speaking out on behalf of our members, and I’m confident we can continue to deliver big wins, as we’ve done in the House of Commons.

The bigger our union, the stronger our collective voice – so, if you’re not yet a member, join today and be a part of the union that speaks up for its members, defends civil service impartiality and isn’t afraid to take the fight to the government when it’s required.


Dave Penman is the General Secretary of the FDA
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