At first glance, civil servants appear to be being ordered to avoid using what seems perfectly ordinary language, in order to uphold a very particular view of what it means to be an “active trans ally”. But read to the end, and we come to this fascinating quotation from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS):
“This guidebook was published by a staff network, its content was not approved prior to being communicated and it is a network rather than a corporate HMPPS view. Following its publication, HMPPS is reviewing the rules around internal communications to staff from network groups.”
So was this just a communication from a non-managerial ‘network group’, whatever that is? Yet it apparently came from the Prison Service’s diversity and inclusion team, which is a very real part of the HR hierarchy in many workplaces. The email was also marked ‘Official Sensitive’, yet the Prison Service claims that it was not official. So was that misuse of the official designation? An honest mistake?
This ambiguity matters because of another bit of ambiguous language in the email itself: “Whilst passing uses of these phrases might not be considered misconduct, the importance of challenging their use cannot be overstated.”
‘Might not be considered misconduct’ is so lightly coded as to be barely coded. But how seriously employees took the implicit warning would obviously depend on whether this was an official communication from the HR hierarchy or a (mislabelled) campaigning email from a peer ‘network’.
Either way, it seems unlikely that this was signed off by a minister. And whilst Civil Service HR have autonomy when it comes to hiring and firing, it seems likely that Dominic Raab could have this advice withdrawn if he called in the appropriate people and so directed them.
Of course, the Justice Secretary is not currently in the strongest position to be taking a firm line on workplace relations issues, a factor which may have encouraged the MoJ’s diversity and inclusion team/network to push their luck a little.
Beyond those specifics, however, this sort of story is problematic for the Conservatives because they invite a glaring contrast between the Party’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric on culture war issues and the almost total lack of concrete policy progress on the same.
At the top level, this is a question of legislation: many of the processes the Tories like to complain about are mandated by the Equality Act 2010, and after 12 years in power – several with a handsome majority – there is precious little excuse for having done nothing about it.
That bleeds through into managing the Civil Service bureaucracy too. It may be that ministers can get this sort of advice withdrawn, if it comes to their attention and they apply themselves to do so, and it could be that ministers with relevant experience or portfolios, such as Kemi Badenoch and Oliver Dowden, could drive some broader change if they likewise focused on it.
But it is probably a safe assumption that for every incident like this which reaches the ears of the Daily Telegraph, there will be several which don’t. The millstones of bureaucracy, to borrow a phrase, grind slowly but exceedingly fine, and trying to offset that with individual ministerial interventions alone is not a sustainable model for holding one’s ground, let alone making actual progress.