A civil service union has turned to the High Court in an attempt to overturn the prime minister’s decision to stand by home secretary Priti Patel after an investigation found evidence she had broken the ministerial code with bullying behaviour.
The FDA launched a judicial review on Friday, saying Boris Johnson’s decision to disregard the findings of the probe could allow ministers to get away with unacceptable behaviour in future.
In November, a Cabinet Office-led investigation into bullying allegations against Patel found evidence she had shouted and sworn at staff. In his summary, Sir Alex Allan, Johnson’s independent adviser on the code, said Patel had failed to treat civil servants with consideration and respect in a way that "could be described as bullying".
While unintended, this behaviour broke the ministerial code, Allan said. But the prime minister decided instead to back Patel and denied that the code had been breached – leading to Allan’s resignation.
Launching the union’s legal action, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the PM’s stance contradicted “clear evidence” that the home secretary had bullied civil servants.
“As the union that represents many of the staff who work day to day with ministers, we cannot simply let this issue rest. Civil servants should expect to work with ministers without fear of being bullied or harassed,” he said.
He said warm words from the PM – who has previously expressed support for the civil service, and who wrote in the foreword to the ministerial code that “there must be no bullying and no harassment” – have “no meaning if the process for addressing those behaviours has been fundamentally undermined by his actions”.
“His decision, which he said reflected the home secretary’s assertion that her actions were unintentional, also potentially allows 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,” Penman said.
He said the judicial review would not seek Patel’s resignation, as this is a matter for the prime minister, but would focus on how the ministerial code is interpreted.
“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,” he said.
He added that in a survey of FDA members who are most likely to work with ministers, nearly 90% said they had no confidence in the code as a mechanism for dealing with bullying and harassment by ministers.
The FDA is also representing former Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam in his constructive dismissal claim against the government.