Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has been told that an independent investigation into the behaviour of Priti Patel is needed in order to restore staff confidence in the department’s handling of complaints of the home secretary’s treatment of staff.
The FDA union for senior civil servants called for an inquiry after permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam resigned on Saturday, claiming that Patel had “created fear” in the department.
"One of my duties as permanent secretary was to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our 35,000 people. This created tension with the home secretary, and I have encouraged her to change her behaviours,” Rutnam said in his resignation statement, in which he announced he would be taking action against the government for constructive dismissal.
The FDA, which is advising Rutnam on his unfair dismissal claim, has now written to Sedwill saying an investigation is needed to restore the confidence of officials in the department. It should be led by a senior external lawyer with the power to access all records related to the conduct of ministers and special advisers towards civil servants, including exchanges on social media and cross-platform messaging services.
General secretary Dave Penman said the union had been raising concerns about the lack of an independent, effective and transparent process for dealing with complaints against ministers from civil servants for more than two years.
“If a civil servant were to raise a complaint against some of the most powerful individuals in the country, they need full confidence that such complaints will be treated fairly and transparently,” he said in the letter. “That process simply does not currently exist. The events of the last few weeks – including public statements from ministers, and indeed the prime minister, relating to these matters – only reinforces the concerns that any complaint would be subject to political influence.
“Whilst urgent reform is needed to these processes, there remains a need for everyone involved – civil servants and the minister – to have these issues resolved quickly. It is now vital that the prime minister asks the cabinet secretary to commission a rapid and thorough independent investigation into the allegations in relation to the home secretary’s behaviours.”
Rutnam’s resignation was described by former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake as extraordinary, and followed reports that Patel had wanted to remove him from his post after clashes over how the Home Office is run.
Rutnam said he had received allegations that Patel's behaviour had included "shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands - behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out".
He said he had been the victim of a "vicious campaign" suggesting he had briefed against Patel.
"The home secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office," said Rutnam.
"I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the efforts I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments."
"Even despite this campaign I was willing to effect a reconciliation with the home secretary, as requested by the cabinet secretary [Sir Mark Sedwill] on behalf of the prime minister. But despite my efforts to engage with her, Priti Patel has made no effort to engage with me to discuss this.
"I believe that these events give me very strong grounds to claim constructive, unfair dismissal – and I will be pursuing that claim in the courts. My experience has been extreme but I consider that there is evidence that it is part of a wider pattern of behaviour.”
Responding to the FDA's letter, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We take all allegations of misconduct seriously.
“We do not comment on individual personnel matters and note Rutnam’s intentions to bring legal action against the government, it would therefore be inappropriate to comment any further at this time.
“We are committed to delivering this government’s agenda, and an interim permanent secretary has been appointed to ensure the vital work of the Home Office continues uninterrupted."
That interim perm sec is Shona Dunn, the Home Office's second perm sec. Dunn joined the department in that role in 2018 from the Cabinet Office, where she was director general of the economic and domestic affairs secretariat.
Rutnam’s resignation in a televised statement on Saturday was “quite extraordinary”, according to former civil service head Lord Bob Kerlskake.
Kerslake, who led the civil service from 2012 to 2014, said Rutnam announcing possible action against government for constructive dismissal was "quite unprecedented”.
He said: “I know Sir Philip, I was part of his appointment as permanent secretary in [the Department for Transport, where he was before moving to the Home Office]. He is a very conscientious, serious-minded and able career civil servant; he would not have done this unless she felt pushed to the limit and beyond. So I think he had good reasons to believe that he was being briefed against and the home secretary if not directly doing it was aware that it was happening and encouraging it.
Kerslake said Sedwill and the prime minister must now have a "very honest and robust conversation about relationships and for the two of them to slay down a marker for ministers and for civil servants about what they expect".
"We cannot have bullying and harassment at the highest levels of government. It is simply not acceptable, and they need to be quite clear about that,” he said.