Cabinet Office accused of 'systemic racism' by former civil servant

Simon Case is the current Cabinet Secretary (PA Archive)
Simon Case is the current Cabinet Secretary (PA Archive)

The Cabinet Office under top Downing Street aide Simon Case has been accused of a “hostile racist working environment” by a former official who says she was forced out of her job.

Rowaa Ahmar accused officials at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government of bullying, discrimination and gaslighting, as she made allegations of “systemic racism” in 2021 and 2022.

In an employment tribunal claim against the government, she claimed she was unfairly forced out of roles at the COP26 climate summit and on an immigration taskforce tackling the small boats crisis, while accusing the officials pushing forward the controversial Rwanda deportation policy of “harbour(ing) racist views about illegal migrants”.

Details of the case were kept under wraps for a year, but can be disclosed on Thursday for the first time after Ms Ahmar abandoned her employment tribunal claim.

The Cabinet Office fiercely denied the allegations throughout the case, calling them “completely unfounded”.

In her original claim to the tribunal, Ms Ahmar, a former Treasury civil servant, wrote: “I was forced to resign by the hostile racist working environment.”

She suggested she was dropped from the immigration Task Force role after attempting to bring forward more compassionate policies.

Ms Ahmar, who is of Egyptian and French dual heritage, named Mr Case in her claim, saying her grievances were ignored by managers and alleging Mr Case – as the top civil servant in the Cabinet Office - failed to protect her.

The Cabinet Office, named as a defendant alongside Mr Case, Civil Service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm and senior officials Michael Bourke and Sarah Harrison, denied all the claims of discrimination and racism.

After Ms Ahmar withdrew her whole claim, 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“The claimant has withdrawn all of these claims and we have agreed to that.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.”

In its defence to the case, it insisted Ms Ahmar was removed from one of her roles due to her own alleged “negative and problematic” behaviour towards colleagues, and insists a string of grievances lodged by Ms Ahmar were properly handled.

The existence of the case was first revealed last April, when Mr Case made a failed bid to be removed as a defendant. The judge, in that ruling accepted that Mr Case was a peripheral figure in the substantial allegations in the claim.

Full details of the allegations have been kept confidential until this week.

Ms Ahmar joined the civil service in 2010, and in June 2021 she was seconded to the Cabinet Office as a Grade 6 official to work on COP26 in Glasgow.

According to her pleaded case, she claims she was belittled and humiliated by a senior manager while working on the conference, she was allegedly singled out for criticism, and she says a reference was made to English being her “third language”.

Ms Ahmar says she was “increasingly bullied” by the manager, and she claimed: “She did not bully the white staff.”

She accused a second manager of “rude, condescending, and hostile” behaviour, of gaslighting her, and she claims he dubbed her a “drama queen”.

Her role at COP26 – where she says she delivered a key policy idea to assist then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans for global vaccine rollout – was abruptly ended.

In January 2022, Ms Ahmar started a second secondment role as head of policy for the Illegal Migration Task Force.

She says she tried to steer the team “away from prejudice and blame” to focusing on tackling criminal people-smuggling gangs, but she claims “my management team were onboard for the racist ultra hostility which a boomerang (no returns) police would involve, and they saw me as an unwelcome visitor to their taskforce”.

She said she was questioned about her dual French and British nationality, and whether it “would be a problem” when working on an immigration policy, and also alleges that her communications skills were also challenged again.

Ms Ahmar says she was abruptly dropped from the Task Force after being accused of bullying – an allegation she denied - and ultimately says she had to resign from the Civil Service in July 2022 as she believed her career had been stunted.

“The mutual trust and confidence which I needed to have the benefit of as a civil servant had been eroded and poisoned by the Cabinet Office,” she said.

“Once the poison is within the civil service system, there is no antidote, and no safe harbour, aside from leaving that vocation.”

She told the tribunal: “None of the senior civil service leaders…had intervened to support me.

“Instead, they appeared to be watching matters from the sidelines, supporting the hostility they could see and knew was being targeted against me.”

The government argued Ms Ahmar’s was removed from the immigration task force due to “conduct towards her colleagues” which was “negative and problematic, leading colleagues to feel disrespected, overburdened, or undermined”.

It says Mr Bourke axed her after he “received concerns about the behaviour of the claimant that amounted to bullying”.

As part of her claim, Ms Ahmar cited a leaked 2022 report about allegations of bullying and racism in the Cabinet Office, with one in ten staffers saying they had experienced victimisation.

She also pointed to the case of Kay Badu, a black civil servant who was handed a six-figure settlement from government after he complained of racial discrimination and bullying over three years in the Cabinet Office.

The tribunal ruled that details of the case could be reported on Thursday, following an application by members of the media.

In a statement on Thursday evening, Lawrence Davies from Equal Justice solicitors, who represented Ms Ahmar, said she stands by the claims of race and sex discrimination that she made in her case.

She paid tribute to the “amazing and modern” leadership of the Treasury, and said she faced a “very different” experience while under Cabinet Office leadership.

“She hopes that the leadership and HR at the Cabinet Office will one day reach the excellent example set by HM Treasury in accountability, proper policy making and leadership,” said Mr Davies.

“The Claimant is starting a new job and wishes to look forward to the future and to focus on continuing her successful career to date. For that reason she decided to withdraw her claims.

“It is now for others to take up the baton and try to tackle the alleged conduct at the Cabinet Office and hold its senior leadership to account.

“To be clear, her claims were not politically motivated but directed at senior civil servants rather than the Government or any political party.”