PM backs Patel as bullying probe finds she broke ministerial code

High drama as Johnson’s independent adviser on standards quits over handling of allegations against home secretary
Photo: Jacob King/PA Archive/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

20 Nov 2020

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said Priti Patel has his “full confidence”, despite the long-unpublished investigation into allegations the home secretary bullied civil servants finding she broke the ministerial code.

Johnson’s independent adviser on the code – which sets out rules for the proper behaviour of politicians holding government office – Sir Alex Allan has announced he is stepping down from his role.

In a statement issued by the Cabinet Office, Allan said: “I recognise that it is for the prime minister to make a judgement on whether actions by a minister amount to a breach of the ministerial code. But I feel that it is right that I should now resign from my position as the prime minister’s independent adviser on the code.”

A two-page summary of Allan's findings said Patel had failed to treat civil servants with consideration and respect in a way that "could be described as bullying",  although it acknowledged her behaviour was unintended. Allan said such behaviour was a breach of the code. A statement from Johnson said he did not consider the code had been breached.

The Labour Party said Johnson’s handling of the investigation into Patel’s conduct – sparked by the resignation of Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam in February – bore “all the hallmarks of a cover-up” and needed to be independently reviewed.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said Johnson, whose foreword to the ministerial code tells ministers “there must be no bullying and no harassment”, now needed to publish the report in full if he was to regain any semblance of credibility.

The Cabinet Office report on the allegations made against Patel relate to her time at the Department for International Development, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office and is understood to have been delivered to No.10 more than two months ago.

Public-sector leaders’ union the FDA is supporting Rutnam in his constructive dismissal case against Patel. Penman said the PM's handling of the report flew in the face of his pledge in the opening page of the ministerial code.

“What kind of message does it send if the prime minister says ‘although I said there would be no bullying, what I actually meant was a little bit of bullying is OK and it’s not a breach of the ministerial code that requires a resignation’?” he said. 

“Civil servants work hand in glove with ministers day in, day out. They need to know if they raise concerns about ministerial behaviour that it will be dealt with fairly.

“Is that really the conclusion that civil servants can reach after the handling of this by the prime minister? He must know what this looks like, and either he just doesn’t care or its more important keeping the home secretary than it is being fair to civil servants.”

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the Labour Party had no confidence in the government’s ability to investigate the Patel case and called for the Committee on Standards in Public Life to intervene.

In a letter to committee chair Lord Jonathan Evans, Thomas-Symonds said it was “increasingly worrying” that the government’s conduct on the investigation “falls short of the seven principles of public life, in particular: integrity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership”.

Last week Evans warned that failing to publish at least key details of the Patel investigation damaged public confidence in government accountability. He accepted that publishing all details may have legal implications.

Labour is also calling for the Cabinet Office investigation into Patel’s conduct to be published in full.

Downing Street’s response to Allan’s advice 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.”

In a statement, Patel said she was "direct" and “got frustrated” at times.

"I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people," she said. “It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone. 

“I am very grateful for the hard work of thousands of civil servants who help to deliver the government’s agenda.”

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