The Cabinet Office will investigate claims of bullying by home secretary Priti Patel, Michael Gove has confirmed.
The Cabinet Office minister said the department would be asked to “establish the facts”, following allegations that Patel had broken the ministerial code.
Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam resigned at the weekend, claiming that Patel had “created fear” in the department and that his attempts to convince her to change her behaviour had “created tension” between him and the home secretary.
Yesterday it was reported that a former civil servant took an overdose and received a five-figure payout from the Department for Work and Pensions after alleging that she was bullied by Patel, who was an employment minister at the time.
The BBC reported that the £25,000 settlement was reached in 2017 after the member of staff threatened to bring a legal claim of bullying, harassment and discrimination against the department.
And the broadcaster cited legal correspondence which said the member of staff attempted to take her own life following an altercation with Patel.
The home secretary has rejected "all allegations" made against her.
Gove told MPs yesterday: “Allegations have been made that the home secretary has breached the ministerial code. The home secretary absolutely rejects these allegations.”
Responding to an urgent question from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons, Gove added: “This government always takes any complaints relating to the ministerial code seriously, and in line with the process set out in the ministerial code the prime minister has asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts.”
Gove said that the cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill would be leading the probe, in accordance with the ministerial code, and that Sir Alex Allan, the independent adviser on the ministerial code and one-time permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice, would also be involved.
Gove confirmed the inquiry would investigate “every legitimately raised complaint” against Patel, including any made while she was in previous roles.
The complainant in the 2015 DWP case is said to have alleged that Patel shouted at her in her private office, telling her to "get lost" and "get out of her face".
According to the BBC, Patel is said to have have acted "without warning" and with an "unprovoked level of aggression".
The member of staff then allegedly took an overdose of prescription medication in her office, before taking a further overdose at home, requiring her to be rushed to hospital.
A spokesperson for the home secretary said: "The home secretary completely rejects all allegations made against her."
The DWP did not admit liability over the 2015 incident, and the case was settled before coming to a tribunal.
In parliament yesterday, Gove repeatedly rebuffed questions from MPs on both the previous allegations and on the events that led up to Rutnam’s resignation. The Home Office perm sec resigned in a speech broadcast on television and is suing the government for constructive dismissal.
“It is long-standing government policy not to comment on individual personnel matters, in order to protect the rights of all involved. What I can and will say is that I know that the dedicated ministerial team at the Home Office and their superb civil servants will continue their critical work on the public’s behalf,” he added.
He added: “The Home Office works tirelessly to keep our citizens safe and our country secure, and we all stand behind the team leading that vital work.”
The announcement comes after the FDA trade union, which represents senior civil servants, called on the prime minister to ask cabinet secretary Sedwill to commission an investigation into allegations of bullying by Patel.
Dave Penman, the FDA’s general secretary, said yesterday that the pledge fell “far short of the independent inquiry” it had wanted to see.
“The government is establishing an inquiry that civil servants are expected to have trust in, whilst at the same time ministers stand at the despatch box and pledge their confidence in the home secretary,” he said.
“We will of course work with the cabinet secretary in relation to his inquiry. However, the decision is symptomatic of the broader concerns we have on the lack of an independent, transparent and fair process for investigating and determining complaints.”
Corbyn also said it was “not enough” to refer the case to the Cabinet Office.
“The government must now call in an external lawyer, as quite rightly suggested by the [FDA],” he said. “A minister in breach of the ministerial code cannot remain in office and should be dismissed.”
And he added: “Why, without a proper investigation, has the prime minister defended the home secretary, calling her fantastic and saying he absolutely has confidence in her?”
Boris Johnson said on Sunday that he “absolutely” had confidence in Patel, and Gove added yesterday: “The prime minister has expressed his full confidence in her, and having worked closely with the home secretary over a number of years, I have the highest regard for her, she is a superb minister doing a great job.”