Priti Patel faces tribunal questioning over alleged bullying

Rajeev Syal
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Helen William/PA</span>
Photograph: Helen William/PA

Priti Patel is facing the possibility of being questioned before a 10-day employment tribunal hearing next September after lawyers for her former permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam pushed forward with a claim for constructive dismissal.

The home secretary, her department, and Downing Street are also being asked to disclose all correspondence related to Rutnam’s departure following claims that he was forced out of his job for intervening in her alleged bullying of fellow civil servants.

A schedule for an employment tribunal has been sent to the Home Office’s lawyers which names the home secretary as the respondent, the Guardian understands.

Both parties have been asked to exchange information on a voluntary basis by January. Witness statements are expected to be exchanged by July and the 10-day hearing is scheduled to take place from 20 September.

The development will increase pressure on Patel, who has denied all allegations against her, and on Boris Johnson, who has publicly backed his home secretary. The government will resist any attempts to force Patel or Johnson to appear before the tribunal as witnesses, it is understood.

(May 2, 2010) 

Becomes the first female Asian Conservative MP. Picked for junior ministerial roles in the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions by David Cameron. Allies herself with the ‘new right’ when she co-authors – with Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Chris Skidmore and Liz Truss – a 2012 book called Britannia Unchained, which calls for lower taxes and massive economic deregulation, with one section famously describing Britons as ‘among the worst idlers in the world’.

(May 2, 2015) 

Gains the right to attend cabinet after the election as secretary of state for the Department of Work and Pensions. A lifelong Eurosceptic, she campaigns vigorously for Vote Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. Attracts ire from Emmeline Pankhurst’s great granddaughter, Helen, when she compares her anti-EU women’s campaign group, Women for Britain, to the suffragettes.

(July 2, 2016) 

Becomes international development secretary under Theresa May, raising concerns among departmental staff and aid charities because of her support for Brexit and her longheld scepticism towards international development and aid spending. One charity even compiles a cuttings dossier of her previous statements calling for the aid budget to be reduced or redistributed.

(November 2, 2017) 

The BBC’s James Landale breaks the story that Patel has held unauthorised work meetings in Israel with senior figures including Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, during what was billed as a family holiday. She is summoned to Downing Street and, after first robustly defending herself, she resigns.

(July 2, 2019) 

After less than two years on the backbenches, returns to the cabinet under Boris Johnson in July as home secretary, prompting rights groups to raise her previous comments on areas including immigration, asylum and criminal justice – not least the death penalty, of which she spoke in favour on the BBC’s Question Time in 2011, a view she now disowns.

(February 2, 2020) 

Sir Philip Rutnam, the Home Office’s top civil servant, resigns and threatens to sue for constructive dismissal after what he calls ‘a vicious and orchestrated’ campaign against him by Patel. A string of further allegations emerge of her bullying, intimidating, belittling and shouting at civil servants in DfID and the DWP as well as the Home Office. She is said to have been cleared by a Cabinet Office inquiry, as yet unpublished.

(June 2, 2020) 

Criticises police chiefs for not clamping down on the Black Lives Matter protesters who toppled the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Condemns the actions of protesters around the country as ‘reckless and unlawful’. Stokes controversy when she tells the Commons she will not ‘take lectures’ on racism, having experienced it herself.

It is the first time that a secretary of state has been pursued to an employment tribunal by a former permanent secretary, the most senior civil servant in a government department.

Patel is still the subject of a seven-month Cabinet Office inquiry into her behaviour which has yet to be signed off by the prime minister.

Rutnam’s case is expected to focus on his claims that in late 2019 and early 2020, he challenged Patel’s alleged mistreatment of senior civil servants in the Home Office, and that he was then hounded out of his job through anonymous briefings.

Reports claimed that a senior Home Office official collapsed after a fractious meeting with Patel. She was also accused of successfully asking for another senior official in the department to be moved from their job.

Rutnam subsequently wrote to all senior civil servants in the department highlighting the dangers of workplace stress. He also made clear that they could not be expected to do unrealistic work outside office hours.

After a report in the Times highlighted tensions between Rutnam and Patel, sources close to Patel were quoted in several newspapers as saying that Rutnam should resign. An article in the Times said he should be stripped of his pension, another in the Telegraph said he was nicknamed Dr No for negative ideas, while one in the Sun compared him to Eeyore, the pessimistic donkey from Winnie the Pooh.

At that time the prime minister’s official spokesman said Johnson had full confidence in the home secretary and in the civil service, though the same guarantee was not given to Rutnam specifically.

Rutnam resigned on 29 February, reading a hastily arranged statement outside his home. In the statement, he accused Patel of orchestrating a “vicious” campaign against him, of lying about her involvement in it and of creating a climate of fear in her department.

Related: Priti Patel says Tories will bring in new laws for 'broken' UK asylum system

He is represented by Gavin Mansfield QC, the head of Littleton Chambers and an employment law specialist, and Clive Howard from the law firm Slater & Gordon. His legal case is being supported by the FDA union.

Dave Penman, the union’s general secretary, claimed last week that the delay in publishing the seven-month bullying inquiry’s findings has eroded trust between ministers and senior civil servants.

Rutnam is making a claim of “protected disclosure” under whistleblowing laws which means that instead of a ceiling of £85,000 on Rutnam’s claim, there will be no upper limit to any damages he might receive.

Patel is expected to be asked to appear as a witness at the hearing by Rutnam’s lawyers. Sir Mark Sedwill, the then cabinet secretary, could also be asked to appear as Rutnam’s then line manager.

The question of who will be a witness will be settled by the tribunal shortly before the hearing.

The government and Rutnam did not respond to a request for a comment.