Former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington has said the department is clearly dealing with “one or two tropical storms” amid reports that Priti Patel has called for her top civil servant’s removal and the claim a report described the department as “institutionally racist”.
Normington said he had no inside knowledge of a rift between secretary of state Patel and current perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam, which emerged in the week that the Home Office announced its proposed points-based system for post-Brexit work visas.
Civil Service World yesterday reported allegations that Patel had fostered an “atmosphere of fear” at the department, since she was appointed a home secretary in Boris Johnson’s first reshuffle as prime minister, back in July.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Normington said tensions between secretaries of state and their permanent secretaries were a fact of life, but the Home Office’s brief could amplify things.
“A former home secretary, Roy Jenkins, said that in the Home Office tropical storms blow up out of a clear blue sky and you need to have very steady nerves and to keep calm in the crises that come at you,” he said.
“Sometimes the tensions arise because, clearly, ministers and civil servants have slightly different roles.
“Ministers want to get on with implementing their manifestos; the job of civil servants is tso come along and say ‘Well, if you want to do it this way, it’s going to take this long… are you sure you want to do it this way? These are the facts. This is the evidence. You may want to slow this down’.
“Sometimes this can be very unwelcome news to a minister who wants to get on with it.”
Normington – who served under five home secretaries from Charles Clarke to Theresa May – said he had “no inside knowledge at all” about what was currently happening at Marsham Street.
“But the Home Office has one or two tropical storms at the moment, and I imagine it’s quite difficult,” he said.
“In those circumstances, the best thing is for the home secretary and the permanent secretary to be absolutely in lock-step, working together bringing together their different perspectives to get through the storm.”
Normington stopped short of drawing a direct link between the alleged tensions between Patel and Rutnam and the new points-based immigration system unveiled on Wednesday.
However he said the timetable for implementation – it is due to come into effect at the beginning of 2021 – looked “tight” and would require close working between ministers and senior officials with “a lot of experience of implementing such systems”.
“I’m sure they’ve had some conversations about how tight it,” he said. “There’s a lot to do; there’s legislation to put in place. If you read what was published this week, there’s still a lot of detail to be put in place.
“The staff will have to be trained and retrained, guidance will be needed for employers and the public, there’ll need to be online application systems. There’s a lot to do in 10 months.”
A report in The Times today claims an early-stage draft of the yet-to-be-published review of the Windrush scandal had concluded that the Home Office was “institutionally racist” – only for the phrase to be purged from a subsequent version.
Normington said he had been “surprised” to see the report.
“Certainly in my time we were not institutionally racist,” he said. “The Home Office that I led was not institutionally racist.
“I’m sure the Home Office has been criticised in the report, but it doesn’t follow that it is institutionally racist. I don’t know what the report said and I don’t know whether it’s been changed.”
The review – being led by inspector of constabulary Wendy Wiliams – is currently going through the “Maxellisation” process, where people criticised are given the opportunity to respond. The Times noted that ministers had yet to see the review.
Elsewhere the paper followed up yesterday’s bullying allegations against Patel with anonymous quotes from officials at the Department for International Development, where she was secretary of state from 2016-17 and the Department for Work and Pensions where she was a junior minister from 2015-16.
One unnamed official described as a “senior figure” said Patel had been “reviled in DfID for her rudeness and insensitivity” and that her tenure as secretary of state had been the “darkest period” of the department’s history.
“She could not have been more hated for the way she treated people,” they said. “She was just vile.”
Another DfID source said Patel would leave meetings with her private office asking “Why is everyone so f***ing useless?”
The Times also quoted a DWP source saying: “She was strongly disliked by her private office who found her a very difficult and unreasonable minister to work with.”
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said putting undue pressure and demands on committed public servants who were already overstretched did not make for good government and would not aid the delivery of policy priorities.
“Ministers have to recognise the consequences of their behavior,” he said. “An ‘atmosphere of fear’ is obviously not conducive to a successful workplace and anonymous briefings against civil servants who cannot answer back are not only unfair to the individual, they corrode public trust in government.”