PM threatened with legal challenge to Priti Patel bullying decision

Union wants judges to review rejection of independent advice that home secretary broke ministerial code
The PM cleared Patel (above) of bullying. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

10 Dec 2020

Public-sector leaders' union the FDA has taken the first steps towards a High Court challenge to Boris Johnson’s overruling of independent advice that Priti Patel bullied some of her civil servants.

Last month the prime minister stood by the home secretary after it finally emerged that independent adviser on ministerial standards Sir Alex Allan had found her behaviour – which included “shouting and swearing” at staff – had amounted to bullying. Allan resigned on the day Johnson confirmed he was overruling the findings.

Now lawyers working for the FDA,  which represents senior civil servants and is understood to have around 500 members at the Home Office alone, have sent a letter before action to the prime minister warning that disregarding Allan’s findings sets a “damaging precedent”.

The letter says no “reasonable decision maker” could have accepted Allan’s findings and gone on to conclude that Patel’s actions were “not in breach” of the ministerial code. Breaches of the ministerial code are traditionally a resignation or sacking matter.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said seeking to have the PM's decision declared wrong in law was not a move that had been taken lightly by the union, but was vital to protect the interests of civil servants.

“Forgotten in all of this sorry saga have been the civil servants who were found to have been bullied by one of the most powerful people in the country. Let down by the conduct of their minister, they have now been abandoned by the prime minister, who is also, ironically, the minister for the civil service,” he said.

Penman pointed to Johnson’s own foreword to the latest incarnation of the ministerial code.

“The prime minister’s words, that he chose to include in his foreword to the ministerial code, that ‘there must be no bullying and no harassment’ are meaningless if they are not followed up by action,” he said.

“That he is so blatantly incapable of doing so has left us with no choice but to seek, by whatever means are available to us, to challenge that decision.”

The FDA is supporting former Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam in his constructive dismissal challenge against Patel, which is due to be heard by an employment tribunal next year.

Separately, the union ast week formally launched a High Court challenge to the government's £95,000 cap on public-sector exit payments, which became law in November without union consultation.

Downing Street’s response to Allan’s findings last month said Patel had been unaware of the impact she had on some staff and was sorry for “inadvertently upsetting” people she was working with.

“As the arbiter of the code, having considered Sir Alex’s advice and weighing up all the factors, the prime minister’s judgement is that the ministerial code was not breached,” it said in a statement.

“The prime minister has full confidence in the home secretary and considers this matter now closed. He is grateful to the thousands of civil servants working extremely hard to support delivery of the government’s priorities.”

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