Freedom of Speech – not if you are a civil servant

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Telegraph and Iain Dale report that an civil servant office administrator has been sacked from the Department of Children, Schools and Families for criticising Hazel Blears anonymously on a blog website.

Commentators have made a range of points, most concluding that it is unreasonable although some have pointed out that Miss Greenwood made the comments in work time from a work PC using her work email account. The Civil Service department has also responded, claiming that "The civil service has a clear code of conduct for its employees, which states that civil servants should be politically impartial and not act in a way that could damage the reputation of their department."

My conclusion is that it is right to be angered and worried over this development.

Civil servants are supposed to be politically impartial, but this is specified and not a complete prohibition on political opinions or their expression. There are certain restrictions, but these vary for certain grades and the most senior posts are the most restricted. There is no way that Miss Greenwood can be accused of breaching any requirement of impartiality based on such a comment at her grade, if it was not related to her work role – by extension, you could argue that she should not vote or express an opinion at home or in the pub!

Extract from the code:


11. You must:
carry out your responsibilities in a way that is fair, just and equitable and reflects the Civil Service commitment to equality and diversity.

12. You must not:
act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests.

Political Impartiality

13. You must:
serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are;

act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government; and

comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities.

14. You must not:
· act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or use official resources for party political purposes; or
· allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.

There is no evidence of damage to the reputation of the department. Miss Greenwood made the post anonymously, with no link to the department or herself. The website may have details of the email address she used or where the post originated, although this would be an administrative issue. More details are probably needed on how she came to the attention of managers.

Miss Greenwood probably committed a disciplinary offence by misusing IT equipment but it is difficult to conclude this is gross misconduct, which is usually considered as an offence so serious that it is punishable by instant dismissal. These normally include violence, theft, criminal damage, drink driving or drinking at work, sexual harassment, accessing pornographic material and so on – many of these are also criminal offences. Most organisations have some low level of IT misuse anyway, and posting on a blog site during work (whether politics, sport or entertainment) is fairly common – most large organisations will have internet filters to prevent access to certain categories of site. Employees should be clearly aware of what gross misconduct constitutes and this should be made clear in personnel guidance and induction.

From the information available, it would appear that Miss Greenwood was sacked unreasonably and not in line with the Code of Conduct or disciplinary regulations. I think she has a fair chance of going to an Employment Tribunal, securing a modest settlement and setting an important precedent. First step should be a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act to build a case relating to her dismissal. It’s important to remember that her career prospects will be damaged, as no-one wants a gross misconduct dismissal on their CV and this shows the relative weighting this government places on the importance of the “message” versus the impact on dissenters, no matter how minor.

Be very worried. But fight back.

*Note* - some uncertainty about the website the comments were posted on - not They Work For You, or any associated blogs, who deny it.



3 Responses to “Freedom of Speech – not if you are a civil servant”
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Richard Dale said...

The greatest damage to the department has been from this complete over-reaction; the people who should be sacked for bringing their department into disrepute are the officers who spent all this effort and (our) money to trace this trivial 'infraction'. What complete muppets.

6 July 2009 at 22:20
JuliaM said...

"The greatest damage to the department has been from this complete over-reaction..."

On the contrary, it's suffered no damage at all. In fact, it won't suffer any, period.

7 July 2009 at 05:41