Home Office perm sec resigns over Priti Patel row and vows to sue government for 'constructive dismissal'

Written by Kevin Schofield on 29 February 2020 in News
News

Resignation comes as he claims home secretary shouted and swore at Home Office staff

Photo: Parliament TV

The Home Office's top civil servant has quit his job and vowed to sue the government for "constructive dismissal".

In a devastating statement, Sir Philip Rutnam said he had been the victim of "a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign" by allies of home secretary Priti Patel.

The long-serving permanent secretary, who has led the Home Office since April 2017 and before that was Department for Transport perm sec for five years, accused Patel of failing to "dissociate herself" from the attacks on him.


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In devastating claims, he also alleged that the home secretary of shouting and swearing at Home Office staff.

His decision to quit comes after reports of major tensions between him and the Home Secretary, who has been forced to deny accusations of bullying by civil servants.

"In the last 10 days, I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign," Sir Philip said in a statement to the BBC.

He said that included "completely false" claims against that he had personally briefed against the home secretary.

It had been reported that Patel had wanted to oust Sir Philip from his post after repeated clashes between the pair over how the Home Office is run.

"The home secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office," said Sir Philip.

"I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the efforts I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments."

"Even despite this campaign I was willing to effect a reconciliation with the Home Secretary, as requested by the cabinet secretary [Sir Mark Sedwill] on behalf of the Prime Minister. But despite my efforts to engage with her, Priti Patel has made no effort to engage with me to discuss this.

"I believe that these events give me very strong grounds to claim constructive, unfair dismissal - and I will be pursuing that claim in the courts. My experience has been extreme but I consider that there is evidence that it is part of a wider pattern of behaviour.

"One of my duties as permanent secretary was to protect the health, safety and well-being of our 35,000 people. This created tension with the Home Secretary, and I have encouraged her to change her behaviours.

"I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands - behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out."

ATTACKS

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, praised Rutnam’s "courage and integrity" and said they would be supporting him in his legal action.

"Sir Philip’s decision to resign and claim constructive dismissal demonstrates once again the destructive consequences of anonymous briefings against public servants who are unable to publicly defend themselves," he said.

"This cowardly practice is not only ruining lives and careers, but at a time when the Home Office is being tasked with delivering a demanding government agenda on immigration, and preparing for a public health emergency, it has diverted energy and resource into responding to unfounded accusations from sources claiming to be allies of the Home Secretary.

"The FDA has supported Sir Philip throughout this period and will continue to support him in his claim for constructive dismissal.

"He had a choice to resign and go quietly with financial compensation, instead he has chosen to speak out against the attacks on public servants. I know many thousands of his colleagues will recognise the courage and integrity he is showing in doing so and will applaud his decision.

"The Home Office now needs to find new leadership at a time when it needs stability. Those who engage in anonymous briefings need to bear the responsibility for this destructive behaviour. Only the prime minister can put a stop to this behaviour and unless he does so, he will have to accept his own responsibility for the consequences."

Responding to the announcement, a PCS spokesman said: "We worked closely with Philip Rutnam on issues around bullying and harassment in the department. We hope his replacement continues with this important work. It is deeply concerning to hear of repeated allegations of bullying by the home secretary and this should be investigated thoroughly."

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect union, said Rutnam “extraordinary and unprecedented resignation” showed the government's response to allegations of bullying has been wholly inadequate.

"All civil servants should be able to speak truth to power without being briefed against and forced out of their jobs. For this to have happened is nothing short of a scandal. This follows the resignation of the chancellor after similar tactics,” he said.

“We are told workers and their rights are a government priority? Well this is the test. Because the culture not three months into this era should concern everyone.

“The prime minister should now intervene to make clear that a strong impartial civil service has his full support and he will not allow this to pass as acceptable on his watch.”

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Kevin Schofield
About the author

Kevin Schofield is the editor of PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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