Priti Patel was repeatedly warned about treatment of staff, former top civil servant claims

Prime minister rules ministerial code not breached despite report finding bullying behaviour

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 20 November 2020 23:43 GMT
Priti Patel: 'I'm sorry that my behaviour has upset people'

Home secretary Priti Patel was repeatedly warned to treat staff with respect and not to shout and swear at them, her department’s former top civil servant has said.

Sir Philip Rutnam spoke out after Boris Johnson allowed Ms Patel to keep her job despite a report which found her guilty of bullying behaviour.

The former Home Office permanent secretary - who quit in February after complaining of a “vicious and orchestrated” briefing campaign against him - said Ms Patel was advised a month after her arrival in 2019 that she must not shout and swear at civil servants, and then told “on a number of occasions” over the next six months that she must treat them with respect and “make changes to protect health, safety and welfare”.

Mr Johnson is coming under intense pressure to give up his power to rule on ministerial misbehaviour, after his decision in the Patel case prompted the resignation of his own independent standards adviser.

Civil service unions described the prime minister’s decision as a “kick in the teeth” for Whitehall staff which would destroy confidence in the government’s complaints processes.

And the Committee on Standards in Public Life said it would “urgently” consider the question of whether the prime minister should remain the sole arbiter of breaches of the ministerial code of conduct.

Opposition parties lined up to insist that the home secretary should have been sacked in response to Sir Alex Allan’s inquiry, which found that: “Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the Ministerial Code, even if unintentionally.”

But Mr Johnson grasped at suggestions in the report that Ms Patel was responding to a lack of support from her new department and was “unaware of issues that she could otherwise have addressed” because she received no feedback about her behaviour.

Overruling Sir Alex, he said that no breach of the code had occurred and declared the matter “closed”, prompting the senior mandarin - a former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and principal private secretary to two prime ministers - to quit his advisory role.

Ms Patel issued an apology which she described as “fulsome”, saying that she was “sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people”, but insisted it had not been her intention to do so.

But in a furious statement, Sir Philip - who is pursuing a constructive dismissal case against the home secretary - said he had not been invited to give evidence to Sir Alex’s inquiry and rejected key conclusions in his report.

"As early as August 2019, the month after her appointment, she was advised that she must not shout and swear at staff,” said Sir Philip.

“I advised her on a number of further occasions between September 2019 and February 2020 about the need to treat staff with respect, and to make changes to protect health, safety and wellbeing.

"Enormous efforts were made from top to bottom in the Home Office to support the new home secretary and respond to her direction, and significant achievements have resulted. The advice does not fairly reflect this."

Sir Alex’s report, compiled earlier this year but suppressed for several months by the prime minister, found that the home secretary’s behaviour towards staff on some occasions met the civil service definition of bullying as “intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down”.

But it also said that the civil service “needs to reflect on its role”, stating that the Home Office was “not as flexible as it could have been” in responding to Ms Patel’s instructions.

“She has – legitimately – not always felt supported by the department,” found Sir Alex. “In addition, no feedback was given to the home secretary of the impact of her behaviour, which meant she was unaware of issues that she could otherwise have addressed.”

The Times reported two unnamed senior Whitehall officials as saying that the prime minister tried and failed to get Sir Alex to tone down his report to find there was no clear evidence of bullying.

Downing Street did not deny the report, with a No 10 spokesman instead saying: "As you would expect, the prime minister spoke to Sir Alex Allan to further his understanding of the report.

"Sir Alex's conclusions are entirely his own."

Shadow home office minister Holly Lynch said the "initial, unedited report" must be published in full and called for an independent investigation.

"These are serious allegations that suggest Boris Johnson tried to interfere with an investigation into bullying accusations against one of his closest political allies," the Labour MP said.

Sir Philip’s successor as Home Office permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, said the document made “difficult reading” for the civil service.

A two-page summary of the report was released during anti-bullying week, which has seen a number of ministers make calls for respect at work.

The prime minister’s press secretary Allegra Stratton was forced to assure reporters that Mr Johnson “loathes bullying” and "would encourage companies and organisations up and down the land to take these things very seriously".

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Patel should have been sacked and accused Mr Johnson of being “found wanting when his leadership has been tested”. He demanded the publication of Sir Alex’s full report, after Downing Street released only a two-page summary.

“It is hard to imagine another workplace in the UK where this behaviour would be condoned by those at the top,” said Sir Keir. “The government should be setting an example. Instead, it is one rule for Boris Johnson and his friends, another for everyone else.”

Prospect union general secretary Mike Clancy said the PM’s decision revealed he was “either too weak or lacks the appropriate moral fibre to do the right thing”.

And FDA leader Dave Penman called for a new independent complaints procedure, saying that the PM’s "complete absence of political leadership and moral authority” meant no civil servant could be confident they would be dealt with fairly or impartially under the existing system.

The chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, former MI5 boss Jonathan Evans, said the episode “raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the current arrangements for investigating and responding to breaches of the Ministerial Code”.

Describing Sir Alex’s resignation as “seismic”, Lord Evans said it was time to consider replacing the current system, under which the prime minister decides whether an investigation should be launched and is the sole arbiter of its final outcome.

“At the moment the level of independence in that process is quite low," he told BBC Radio 4’s PM. "The prime minister will inevitably be caught between on the one hand his political judgment of the current circumstances and on the other hand, standards issues.“

In a statement, Downing Street said that Mr Johnson had noted Sir Alex’s advice and was reassured that “the home secretary is sorry for inadvertently upsetting those with whom she was working” and that relations between civil servants and ministers at the Home Office were now “much improved”.

“As the arbiter of the code, having considered Sir Alex’s advice and weighing up all the factors, the prime minister’s judgement is that the Ministerial Code was not breached,” said No 10.

Ms Patel said in a statement: “I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people. It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone.”

She added: “I am very grateful for the hard work of thousands of civil servants who help to deliver the government’s agenda.

“I care deeply about delivering on the commitments we have made to the people of this country and I acknowledge that I am direct and have at times got frustrated.”

Daniel Bruce, chief executive of anti-corruption campaign Transparency International UK, said: “This is now about more than just one minister. Today’s developments raise serious questions about the vulnerabilities of the system that is supposed to ensure integrity and good governance. 

"Never in recent memory has a minister failed to step down after having been found to have breached the Ministerial Code.

“There is now a vacancy for a new adviser on ministerial standards - anyone considering applying will surely need considerable reassurance on the autonomy and independence of the role. "


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