The top civil servant at the Department for International Development (DfID) has written to staff to reassure them that the ministry has “zero tolerance” of bullying and harassment in the wake of reports about Priti Patel.
Patel, who was international development secretary from July 2016 until November 2017, has been beset by a raft of reports alleging she bullied and belittled officials at both the Home Office and DfID, where she reportedly openly described staff as “fucking useless”.
In an email to all staff seen by the Guardian, the DfID permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, said that in light of the reports he was writing to staff “to underline the importance of preventing bullying” and revealed that a recent internal survey had highlighted that the department had more to do.
In a separate email, the head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, has issued a warning to civil servants over briefing to the media, saying it “besmirches this country’s hard-won reputation for good governance”.
Rycroft, who took up his post after Patel, now home secretary, was forced to resign from the government after it emerged she had held unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials, also cautions against “unauthorised briefings or comments from the media”.
But the bulk of the message concerns bullying within the department and support available to staff.
“You might have seen news reporting in recent days on allegations of bullying in DfID by a minister a few years ago,” Rycroft writes.
“I am writing to you all directly now to underline the importance of preventing bullying from happening, and to ensure that everyone knows how to access support if needed.
“DfID has a zero tolerance approach to bullying and harassment. The entire leadership team and I take this very seriously and I want to reassure all staff that the department is here to support anyone who feels subject to unacceptable behaviour.”
He adds: “Our management board has decided to take further action to address bullying, harassment and discrimination in DfID. The recent people survey highlighted that we have more to do.
“If you do have any concerns about bullying, harassment or discrimination from anyone you worth with, please do not stay silent.”
Rycroft tells staff that if they have “particular concerns in relation to a minister, there are procedures in place”, adding: “Be assured that concerns of this nature will be taken seriously.”
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said he had “full confidence” in Patel’s ability.
Earlier, James Brokenshire, one of Patel’s Home Office ministerial colleagues, dismissed claims that she had been bullying officials, as the home secretary pushed for an inquiry into a series of damaging leaks about her approach in the department.
However, the PM’s spokesman said there would be no leak inquiry into the source of reports that revealed an alleged spat between Patel and the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Philip Rutnam.
In his note to civil servants, Sedwill alludes to “recent stories of tensions within Whitehall, sparked by unattributable briefings and leaks to the media”.
“This besmirches this country’s hard-won reputation for good governance and is a distraction from the vital work of the thousands of civil servants delivering the government’s agenda and the public services on which our citizens rely.”
He adds: “Candour, confidentiality and courtesy between ministers, special advisers and civil servants are crucial to the trust and confidence on which good governance depends.
“Civil servants should at all times be confident they can give honest, impartial and objective advice on which ministers can rely.
“Both should be confident that this advice, and any debate that surrounds it, will remain private and that everyone will at all times adhere to the high standards set out in the civil service, special adviser and ministerial codes.”