The home secretary, Priti Patel, has been accused of creating an “atmosphere of fear” inside the Home Office as it was claimed she tried to remove permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam from his job.
Civil service unions said officials in the department were working "flat out" and deserved greater support, amid reports in The Times that cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has been asked to intervene after Patel called for Rutnam’s removal.
The home secretary has meanwhile been accused of taking an angry and aggressive tone in meetings, with several sources telling the paper that she had placed unrealistic demands on her staff.
A Home Office source told the paper Patel was a rude and “extraordinary person to work for”, adding: “No one can see how this is going to be resolved. It is going to blow up sooner or later".
Another said: “Sir Philip and [Patel] have fundamental disagreements about the rule of law. He’s committed and she isn’t. She’s belittled him and caused consternation, and she frequently encourages behaviour outside the rule of law.” The Times said Patel attempted to get Rutnam replaced after he raised concerns about her behaviour.
A Home Office spokesperson said there had been no “formal” complaint lodged against Patel.
Allies of the home secretary took aim at Rutnam and rejected claims of bullying, with one referring to the resignation of Amber Rudd as home secretary, after bad briefing by officials led to her incorrectly telling MPs that her department did not have targets for the number of people it deported. “The Home Office is dysfunctional and the current permanent secretary had presided over a sacking of a home secretary and accidental deportations," they said.
“If this were any other environment, Philip Rutnam would not only be sacked, he’d be denied a pension. The lack of accountability in the civil service is deeply troubling and the prime minister will not accept this in the long term.”
But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, said "anonymous briefings against civil servants who cannot answer back are not only unfair to the individual, they corrode public trust in government”.
“The Home Office, by its very nature, has a wide-reaching, demanding policy agenda, and civil servants working in the department are used to rising to these challenges," he said.
“Putting undue pressure and demands on committed public servants that are already overstretched does not make for good government and will do this administration no favours in delivering its policy priorities.
“Ministers have to recognise the consequences of their behaviour. 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.”
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect trade union, said more must be done to ensure civil servants did not face a difficult working environment.
“A culture of bullying in any workplace is toxic and civil servants will rightly expect ministers to lead by example in the way that they treat officials," he said, noting that amendments to the ministerial code made under former prime minister Theresa May had made it clear there would be "zero tolerance of bullying and harassment".
But he said the Cabinet Office had "dragged its feet on developing a clear system for civil servants to raise concerns about ministerial behaviour".
He added: “Civil servants must be able to give impartial advice to ministers without fear or favour. There have been far too many attacks on the integrity of civil servants in recent years, this is a worrying trend that the prime minister must put a stop to," he said.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have not received any formal complaints and we take the welfare of our staff extremely seriously.”
Patel has previously been sharply critical of the civil service, with a source close to her arguing in 2017 that some officials “are paid almost twice as much as the secretary of state to do their job and yet they do not take full responsibility for their actions and screw ups”.
CSW has asked the Cabinet Office for a comment.