High Court agrees to hear Patel bullying challenge

Judicial review will rule on whether prime minister was wrong to decide home secretary did not break ministerial code
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

27 Apr 2021

The High Court is to examine whether prime minister Boris Johnson was wrong to decide that home secretary Priti Patel’s harassment of staff did not break the ministerial code – despite his standards adviser concluding it did.

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants and other public sector leaders, launched judicial review proceedings over the prime minister’s decision not to sack Patel following ministerial standards adviser Sir Alex Allan’s report. His investigation was prompted by the resignation of former Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam.

Now, following an examination of the background to the case, the High Court has agreed to proceed to a full hearing. A recent Institute for Government report on the use of judicial review said that between 2007 and 2019 around 85% of cases did not progress to a full hearing, while just 14% of claims that progressed were successful.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the union was “very pleased” Mr Justice Linden had given the go-ahead for a full hearing of the case.

“The ministerial code is the only means by which civil servants can raise complaints against the conduct of ministers and it is vital that decisions on this are subject to the rule of law,” he said.

“Ministers should be held to the same standards of conduct as civil servants. We welcome the opportunity now granted to argue that point fully that the prime minister erred in his interpretation of the ministerial code when deciding that the home secretary did not break the code.”

The Cabinet Office finally revealed the results of Allan’s investigation into Patel’s conduct in November last year. It found evidence she had shouted and sworn at staff and failed to treat civil servants with consideration and respect in a way that "could be described as bullying".

Allan said he believed Patel’s actions were unintended, but nevertheless broke the ministerial code. Johnson decided to back Patel and denied that the code had been breached – leading to Allan’s resignation.

When the FDA launched its judicial review bid in February, Penman said the intention was to examine the way the ministerial code was interpreted, rather than to seek Patel’s removal from office.

He said the prime minister had insisted his decision on Patel’s conduct “reflected the home secretary’s assertion that her actions were unintentional”.

However, Penman said the move would potentially allow ministers to avoid the consequences of their behaviour in future by “pleading that it should be the intent of their actions which is important, not the consequences”.

He said a survey of FDA members most likely to work with ministers found that 90% had no confidence in the code as a mechanism for dealing with bullying and harassment by their political masters.

Penman said: “The prime minister, who is also minister for the civil service, needs to recognise the damage he has done to confidence in the ministerial code.”

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