Home Secretary Priti Patel’s defence to an official inquiry that found she breached the ministerial code by bullying staff has been contradicted by her former top civil servant.
She insisted on Friday that “issues were not pointed out to me” at the time, as Boris Johnson overruled the report to say she did not breach the rules, prompting the resignation of his adviser on ministerial standards.
But Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit as the Home Office’s permanent secretary after accusing Ms Patel of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him, contested the investigation’s conclusion that she received no feedback on the impact of her behaviour, which she was echoing as a defence.
He said she was advised not to shout and swear at staff the month after her appointment in 2019 and that he told her to treat staff with respect “on a number of further occasions”.
Sir Philip also contradicted the advice to the Prime Minister from Sir Alex Allan, who conducted the inquiry, and said he was not interviewed for the inquiry despite him having launched a constructive dismissal claim at an employment tribunal.
Meanwhile, Downing Street did not deny a report in the Times that the Prime Minister tried and failed to get Sir Alex to water down his report to find there was no clear evidence of bullying.
Instead, a No 10 spokesman said: “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.”
Sir Alex found Ms Patel had not always treated civil servants with “consideration and respect”, and concluded that her approach on occasions “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals”.
He said Ms Patel had “not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code”, though he said there was “no evidence that she was aware of the impact of her behaviour”.
The Home Secretary issued an “unreserved, fulsome apology” and said there were “no excuses” for what happened but seized on Sir Alex’s assessment of her awareness.
She told the BBC that “any upset that I’ve caused is completely unintentional and at the time, of course it says it’s in the report, that issues were not pointed out to me”.
Later on, Sir Philip released a statement through the FDA union for civil servants saying that “at no stage asked to contribute evidence” to the investigation.
“The advice states that no feedback was given to the Home Secretary and that she was therefore unaware of issues that she might otherwise have addressed. This is not correct,” he said.
“As early as August 2019, the month after her appointment, she was advised that she must not shout and swear at staff.
“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.”
Mr Johnson, who is the ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code, judged that Ms Patel did not breach the rules and continues to have “full confidence in her”. He “considers this matter now closed, according to a Government statement.
Sir Alex resigned in response to Mr Johnson’s verdict, saying in a statement: “I recognise that it is for the Prime Minister to make a judgment on whether actions by a minister amount to a breach of the ministerial code.
“But I feel that it is right that I should now resign from my position as the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on the code.”
Ministers are usually expected to resign if they breach the code, and Mr Johnson’s decision to stand by Ms Patel sparked fury from opposition MPs, particularly as it came during Anti-Bullying Week.
In the interest of transparency, the report into Priti Patel’s conduct and any drafts should now be fully published and the Prime Minister and Home Secretary should come to the House on Monday to face questions on their conduct.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) November 20, 2020
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “It is hard to imagine another workplace in the UK where this behaviour would be condoned by those at the top.”
Matthew Rycroft, the current permanent secretary at the Home Office, said relationships between officials and ministers at the department had “improved considerably” but admitted the report made for “difficult reading”.
The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Evans of Weardale, said Sir Alex’s resignation was “deeply concerning” and that his committee would look “urgently” at what had happened as part of its review of the ministerial code.
Mr Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton said: “The Prime Minister does personally take these allegations exceedingly seriously. He loathes bullying. He takes it very seriously and recognises that it is very difficult for people to come forward and raise concerns.
“He did say that he would not tolerate bullying. He hasn’t tolerated bullying. It is not his belief that Priti Patel is a bully.”
Downing Street indicated that the full report into Ms Patel’s conduct would not be published in order to protect those who gave evidence.
A Cabinet Office investigation was launched in March over allegations that Ms Patel belittled colleagues and clashed with senior officials in three different departments.
It followed the resignation of then-permanent secretary Sir Philip who accused Ms Patel of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him and is claiming constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal.