How one woman took on the DWP and won

It isn’t “discriminatory” to challenge politicisation

Artillery Row

This piece is all about Anna.

In 2020 Anna Thomas was a civil servant in the Department for Work and Pensions, working as a work coach at the Portsmouth job centre. Anna enjoyed her job, and she was good at it. She was helping some of the most vulnerable members of society get their lives back on track — a public servant who got a kick out of serving the public. Add to that, her first child had just been born. Life was pretty good.

However, something toxic was going on at the DWP. A few months after the death of George Floyd, Anna wondered why her employer was encouraging her to treat racism like Covid-19 and to “assume that you have it”. Anna, who was articulate and intelligent, was pretty sure that she didn’t “have it”. She believed passionately and eloquently in the fundamental equality of all persons, regardless of their characteristics — a belief she put into practice every day helping people of all backgrounds put their lives back together.

This messaging was coming from the DWP’s “Anti-racism Hub”. The Hub was prefaced with a message and mugshot from the Department’s Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield, intoning in the unlovely boilerplate of the mandarin about the need to be “actively anti-racist” and to “make DWP an anti-racist organisation”.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think, compared to the alternative of being pro-racist. Those of you wearily familiar with the teachings of Critical Race Theory will know that “anti-racism” is something far removed from a belief in equality. We can turn to the DWP’s voluminous resources on race to help us out with an explanation. It is, they correctly pointed out, distinct from “non-racism”. Anti-racism calls for the rejection of the colour-blindness of Martin Luther King — which “minimises the very real ways in which racism has existed and continues to exist”, apparently — and asks white people to be “allies” in the fight against systemic racism.

DWP employees with a real thirst for the Kool Aid could take the first steps to becoming anti-racist by following the advice set out in the “Becoming race confident resource”:

  1. Admit that you deny racism is a problem;
  2. Admit that you talk to others who look and think like you;
  3. Educate yourself about race and structural racism;
  4. Understand your own privilege in ignoring racism;
  5. Understand how you may unknowingly benefit from racism;
  6. Yield your positions of power to those otherwise marginalized;
  7. Promote and advocate for policies and leaders that are Anti-Racist.

Now this advice is, at best, somewhat presumptuous — and certainly grossly offensive to those who, like Anna, believe passionately in human equality. Most importantly, it is wildly unlawful: a government department subject to the Civil Service Code may not adopt and promote a radical political agenda.

Anna therefore did the right thing and blew the whistle. She emailed senior colleagues to notify them that the DWP’s resources breached the Code’s obligation not to “allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions”. Whilst the Black Lives Matter protests gripped the nation’s attention, Anna was clear-sighted enough to point out that the DWP’s promotion of Stonewall’s theories of sex and gender was similarly unlawful. (The DWP seems to have agreed with Anna after the fact — it left the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme in June 2022.)

When the Department kept on pumping out further agitprop in intranet blog posts (this article can only scratch the surface of what went on), Anna again alerted colleagues to the danger of breaching the Code. She was remorselessly clear and consistent (and respectful) in reminding colleagues that as civil servants, they had to leave their politics at home.

The DWP destroyed the career and the health of an articulate young woman

From here on in, we must venture down the rabbit-hole of a radicalised bureaucracy (consider this a trigger warning). Anna was issued a final written warning because, by blowing the whistle, she had caused colleagues “offence” and “upset”. At the very same time that Anna was being disciplined, a separate investigation concluded that she was in fact right to blow the whistle. The DWP’s own behavioural science expert advised investigators that Anna was right, and the Anti-racism Hub was indeed “political”. The Permanent Secretary should not have gone down the “anti-racism” road, she concluded, and Anna should be made an ally and a sounding board in promoting a balanced view.

In employment law terms, this was a smoking gun — virtually a concession that Anna was punished for disclosing that her employer was failing to comply with a legal obligation.

A generous soul might conclude that Anna was simply a victim of bureaucratic bungling, with the right hand not knowing what the left was doing. However, the ferocity with which DWP continued to pursue her makes this simply implausible.

About a month after the final written warning, Anna was asked to promote an event for female, BAME and LGBT+ jobseekers interested in a career with the Metropolitan Police. Anna told her line manager over Teams that excluding straight white men (whatever their sins, real and imagined) was probably unlawful discrimination. It’s a moot point whether Anna was right — the event may well have been lawful positive “action” rather than unlawful positive discrimination — but for the purposes of the law what matters is that she reasonably believed, in good faith, that the event was discriminatory. I suspect many would believe the same.

Anna was formally charged with discriminatory conduct (why “discriminatory”? we still don’t know). A long investigation followed during which Anna was seriously unwell (the DWP knew of her pre-existing health conditions, but this didn’t stay their hand). Finally, in November 2021 Anna was dismissed. An unfathomable blancmange of reasons was given, but the decision to dismiss seems to have turned on Anna causing “upset”, “distress” and “offence”.

The Free Speech Union was able to help Anna. Specialist employment barrister Spencer Keen provided tremendously generous help (with yours truly doing the donkey work), and formidable grounds of claim were submitted to the Employment Tribunal alleging unfair dismissal, automatic unfair dismissal for whistleblowing, victimisation, belief and race discrimination, and harassment.

The usual hard graft of litigation followed, and shortly before trial the DWP settled for £100,000. It didn’t admit liability, but given the settlement figure, and given the difficulty of getting Treasury approval to settle any claim, one can take a fair guess at the DWP’s assessment of the merits.

Where does this leave us? We know where it leaves Anna — it leaves her without a career and without a pension. The DWP destroyed the career and the health of an intelligent, articulate young woman because it would not accept challenges to a radical political agenda it had unlawfully adopted. Worse, it would not tolerate Anna exercising her protected right to expose wrongdoing. This was a gross injustice, and it must not happen again.

Systemic problems arise for consideration, too. At the heart of this case was a catastrophic failure of imagination by the DWP. It believed that its favoured approach to diversity and equality was the obvious, “vanilla” choice. To challenge it was to reject diversity and equality entirely, like some sort of monster. With extraordinary narrowness of mind, the DWP didn’t see that these are morally controversial concepts (very controversial in the case of CRT and gender ideology), on which reasonable people can differ.

Anna’s mistreatment was not an anomaly, but the foreseeable result

Civil servants do important work and often do it well — we shouldn’t disparage them. It’s nonetheless true to say that “imaginativeness” isn’t their métier — in fact, as a matter of constitutional propriety, the business of imaginative approaches to moral and social matters belongs in the political sphere. It is the role of the Civil Service to execute the policies and laws that result from the deliberative political process. Identitarian politics are exceptionally likely to exert a malign influence in the hands of people whose job it is to be unimaginative and process-driven. Anna’s mistreatment was not an anomaly, but the foreseeable result of experimental dabbling by mandarins. That experiment must stop — it is an engine of unfair and unlawful conduct.

The dangers of politicisation of the Civil Service are well known. A particularly poignant aspect of Anna’s case was her fear that the Department’s politicking would eventually lead to a biassed approach to serving the public — a fear that proved well-founded, to the detriment of Portsmouth’s jobseekers. It is hard to understate the risk this poses to the credibility and legitimacy of the Civil Service, particularly at a time when its impartiality is under closer scrutiny than ever before.

What, then, might be the way out of this? Truth and reconciliation would be a good start. How did the DWP become beholden to such a toxic political culture? Why did the Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield promote it, rather than rein it in? How many other careers have been destroyed because of it?

The government should also appoint an external task-force to clear this Augean stable. If the Civil Service will not allow its own employees to hold it to account when it breaks the law, then it clearly isn’t fit to mark its own homework. Dominic Cummings’ “hard rain” isn’t likely to fall, but a little light drizzle is surely called for.

Two things at least need to happen. First, civil servants from top to bottom need to be schooled in when an issue is politically controversial, thereby triggering impartiality obligations. “Do I, and people I follow on Twitter, agree with this?” is not the appropriate test. Senior civil servants may find it somewhat demeaning to be schooled in such a basic matter, but, as my mother would tell them, they’ll be treated like grown-ups when they start acting like grown-ups.

Second, the Civil Service Code should be amended to state expressly that impartiality requirements are not limited to party politics, but encompass matters of public debate generally (including especially cultural politics). The sex vs. gender debate, for instance, is red-hot politics, and it is inexcusable to pretend otherwise.

We also need to appeal to hearts and minds. Civil servants need to know that the law protects their right to blow the whistle and their right to hold philosophical beliefs. The disgraceful canard tried on by the DWP — that complaining about politicisation is itself unlawful politicking and “offensive” to boot — must not be allowed to muzzle other civil servants wishing to speak out in the public interest. There is no carte blanche, but the law is there to be relied on, as are organisations like the Free Speech Union.

Finally, ministers need to find the moral courage to remind the Civil Service who governs in our liberal democracy. Politics is their domain, and they should defend constitutional propriety with at least as much courage as Anna Thomas showed.

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