High Court poised to probe PM’s decision on Patel bullying

Next week’s hearings will add to pressure over Johnson’s approach to standards and support for civil servants
Home secretary Priti Patel. Photo: Matthew Chattle/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

12 Nov 2021

The FDA civil service union has confirmed its High Court challenge to Boris Johnson’s rejection of top-level findings that home secretary Priti Patel breached the ministerial code by bullying Home Office officials will be heard next week.

The judicial review hearings, set to take place on Wednesday and Thursday, will examine whether the PM was wrong in law to decide Patel’s harassment of staff did not break the code – despite standards adviser Sir Alex Allan’s conclusion that it did.

After a torrid couple of weeks that have seen renewed focus on sleaze in parliament – marked by the government’s botched attempt to reform the standards system for MPs and save the back of former minister Owen Paterson – the timing of next week’s judicial review could not be worse for Johnson.

The full hearing comes a year to the week after the PM decided not to accept Allan's  findings, prompting the former Ministry of Justice permanent secretary’s resignation as Johnson’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests and the ministerial code.  

In his resignation statement, Allan acknowledged that prime ministers are the ultimate arbiters of whether the ministerial code has been breached. But had Johnson accepted Allan’s findings, Patel would have been expected to resign or be sacked.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said his union’s High Court challenge is not about “forcing sanctions” on Patel but on the way the ministerial code is interpreted. He said the FDA is seeking a ruling that Johnson “misdirected himself” in the face of findings that officials had been treated unacceptably.

“A year ago, the prime minister made the extraordinary decision that the home secretary did not breach the ministerial code, despite clear evidence that she bullied civil servants and the conclusion of his independent adviser that she had breached the ministerial code,” he said.

“Civil servants should expect to work with ministers without fear of being bullied or harassed. The prime minister, as the final arbiter of the ministerial code and minister for the civil service, has a duty to ensure that civil servants can work with ministers without fear of being bullied or harassed.”

Penman said Johnson’s decision – which the prime minister said at the time reflected Patel’s assertion that her actions were unintentional – potentially allowed ministers to avoid the consequences of their behaviour by pointing to their “intent” rather than the impact of their actions.

“The result is that civil servants’ confidence in challenging unacceptable behaviour from ministers has been fatally damaged,” he said.

“In our survey of members who are likely to work with ministers, 90% said they had no confidence in the ministerial code as a mechanism for dealing with bullying and harassment from ministers.

“Even now, at this late stage, the prime minister has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the government’s approach to standards in parliament.

“I urge him to work with us to rebuild confidence among civil servants to ensure that the ministerial code is fit for purpose as an ethical code of standards for ministers and that civil servants can have a transparent and independent process for dealing with their complaints.”

Patel's behaviour "created fear"

Investigations into allegations of staff-bullying on the part of Patel were sparked by the resignation of Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam in February last year. 

Rutnam’s departure followed what he described as a “vicious and orchestrated” briefing campaign in an unprecedented video statement announcing his decision to quit.

The perm sec said he did not believe Patel’s claims not to have been involved and planned to sue the government for “constructive, unfair dismissal”.

He  added that he had received complaints about the home secretary “shouting and swearing, belittling people, [and] making unreasonable and repeated demands” which “created fear” among staff.

Rutnam’s case was never heard by an employment tribunal because he reached a compensation settlement with the Home Office in March this year.

The department paid him £340,000, plus a £30,000 contribution towards his legal expenses – adding up to a total cost of £376,000 once the VAT on legal services was added.

According to the Home Office’s 2019-20 annual report, Rutnam’s final salary band at the department was £180,000-£185,000 a year, with additional pension benefits of £79,000. It gave a total remuneration package of £255,000-£260,000.

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