There is something troubling about the resignation statement Sir Philip Rutnam made to camera last Saturday. The mournful, three-minute speech was delivered in the rain, a disembodied arm holding an umbrella above his head. “I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign,” he announced, looking as visibly distressed as it is possible for a career civil servant to be. “My experience has been extreme.” Colleagues had complained that the home secretary, Priti Patel, was shouting and swearing at them, “behaviour that created fear, and needed some bravery to call out”. She has denied allegations of bullying.
Further details have emerged, and it is easy to view Rutnam’s resignation as an honourable gesture. And yet his decision to choose this moment to make a principled stand is very revealing. Set against his department’s recent dismal record, the sacrifice of his 33-year career in response to a minister’s bullying behaviour feels problematic.
When Theresa May finally, belatedly, apologised in April 2018 for the Windrush scandal, Rutnam had been in his post as permanent secretary to the Home Office for a year. He was the most senior civil servant in a department that had been extremely slow to react to the emerging evidence that thousands of people who were living entirely legally in the UK had been wrongly classified by his own department as illegal immigrants, with catastrophic consequences. Many lost their jobs and were subsequently told they were ineligible for unemployment benefits, some were made homeless, others were denied life-saving NHS treatment, and some were detained in immigration removal centres, or sent back to distant countries they had left as children half a century earlier. Some died in Home Office-enforced exile. These were policies that truly created fear and required bravery to call out.
In this context, Rutnam’s description of his experience at the hands of his boss as “extreme” seems a little thin-skinned. Being belittled and sworn at in the office must be an unpleasant experience, but it seems trifling compared with the experiences of people such as Sylvester Marshall, who was told to pay £54,000 for cancer treatment or do without it (despite having lived in London legally since he was a teenager, and paying taxes for decades); or Joycelyn John, a former employee at the Ritz, who was told she had no right to be in the UK (despite having lived here legally since 1963), and who was put on a plane to Grenada, a country she had left aged four.
Of course no one expects a civil servant to resign every time their department messes up. But it is the responsibility of the permanent secretary to make sure the ministry responds swiftly to problems. For months, when I was repeatedly calling the department to highlight how people were being mistakenly sacked, denied benefits or held in immigration detention, officials took no discernible action.
Civil servants are institutionally detached from the lives of the people affected by the policies they are implementing, and much more preoccupied by the moods of colleagues and the ministers they serve. If there was bullying of his colleagues, Rutnam will have observed it first hand, while his Whitehall existence will have insulated him from the experiences of those struggling to extract themselves from the government’s hostile environment.
The Home Office is such an opaque institution that we still don’t know what was happening inside the department in the months before the scandal broke. But at the very least, Rutnam displayed an unforgivable lack of curiosity about the effects of its policies. At a select committee hearing in December 2018, Rutnam listened to Vernon Vanriel, 64 (a boxer who had lived in London since arriving as a six-year-old in 1962), who was left destitute in Jamaica for years when the Home Office ruled he had no right to return home after a visit. Rutnam said he was “absolutely appalled” to hear the account (despite the fact that Vanriel’s experiences, and those of so many other affected people had been detailed repeatedly in the Guardian and elsewhere over the preceding 12 months). “In my 30-odd years of public service, I have never seen an episode like this,” he remarked.
Asked to explain why so many people had, like Vanriel, been so horrifically and unfairly affected by the tightening immigration legislation, he said he didn’t know. His conclusion felt remarkably casual: “I think probably that people’s minds were elsewhere.” He didn’t reflect on why that was – leaving us to assume that their minds were elsewhere because those affected were a largely voiceless, often marginalised group of elderly black people, whom officials found it easy to ignore.
Was the Home Office institutionally racist? Very probably, but we are still waiting for the official verdict on what went wrong. The independent lessons-learned review, commissioned soon after the government’s first apologies, has still not been published. Most of those who bore responsibility – David Cameron (with his push to cut net migration to the tens of thousands), former home secretaries Theresa May and Amber Rudd – have moved on. The ex-director general of the Home Office Glyn Williams has been knighted, while other senior civil servants have been shunted sideways into other posts. They, like Rutnam, will feel relieved to be out of the department when the report is finally released.
It is almost two years since the government acknowledged that its own policies caused horrendous suffering, but the Home Office compensation scheme (designed to pay out somewhere between £200 and £570 million) has distributed just £62,198 between 36 people. The hostile environment legislation remains in place.
Rutnam was able to summon the BBC to tell them that he is considering legal action against his employers. He is lucky to be able to afford that luxury, since legal aid for most employment cases has been cut by the government, just as it has for immigration cases – as those affected discovered when they tried to consult lawyers to extract themselves from the claws of immigration enforcement teams. They struggled to get the BBC to pay attention to their difficulties. It is unlikely that victims of the Home Office’s own vicious and orchestrated campaign will have much time for Rutnam’s complaints about workplace bullying.
• Amelia Gentleman is a Guardian reporter and author of The Windrush Betrayal; Exposing the Hostile Environment, Guardian Faber