Priti Patel bullying inquiry: why was it held and what did it find?

We examine the background to the report and how the prime minister and home secretary have reacted

The home secretary, Priti Patel, has avoided the sack despite a Cabinet Office inquiry reportedly uncovering evidence of bullying within the Home Office.

The inquiry concluded that Patel broke the ministerial code of conduct, but the prime minister, Boris Johnson, ignored the findings and ruled that she did not break the code. As a result, she will not lose her position.

Here we take a look at the background to the inquiry:

What were the allegations?

Allegations against Patel emerged in March after the resignation of Philip Rutnam, the former Home Office permanent secretary, over what he described as a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him for challenging the alleged mistreatment of civil servants.

According to reports, a senior Home Office official collapsed after a fractious meeting with Patel, who is understood to have successfully asked for another senior official in the department to be moved from their job.

Further allegations emerged against Patel in the aftermath. An official in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) received a £25,000 payout after she alleged that she had been bullied in 2015 by Patel, who was employment minister at the time. The DWP did not admit liability and the case did not come before a tribunal.

Officials in Patel’s private office at the Department for International Development allegedly accused her of humiliating civil servants in front of others while a minister in 2017.

What was the process?

The Cabinet Office inquiry was launched in March by Michael Gove and conducted by Helen MacNamara, the civil service’s head of ethics. The prime minister has been advised by Sir Alex Allan, Whitehall’s independent adviser on ministerial standards.

The inquiry was completed at the start of the summer and forwarded to No 10.

What did it find?

The prime minister has not published the full report. But a statement published by Allan revealed that Patel had “not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect”.

Allan added: “Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.”

The statement revealed that at times Patel had shouted and sworn at civil servants due to the “Home Office leadership’s lack of responsiveness and the lack of support”.

Allan said Patel’s behaviour met the civil service definition of bullying as “intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down”.In separate proceedings, Patel is also facing the possibility of being questioned at a 10-day employment tribunal hearing next September after lawyers for Rutnam pushed forward with a claim for constructive dismissal.

What is the ministerial code?

The ministerial code is a government document setting out the standards expected of ministers in office.

In the foreword, the prime minister writes: “There must be no bullying and no harassment.”

Crucially, ministers are normally expected to resign if they are found to have broken the code and there are no known cases of a minister staying in post following a breach.

It is not the first time Patel has been accused of breaching the ministerial code. The Essex MP was forced to resign from the cabinet in November 2017 as international development secretary over unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians.

What did Johnson decide and what were his options?

As the sole arbiter of the rules, the prime minister decides if there has been a breach.

He ignored Allan’s findings and decided Patel did not breach the code. As a result, Allan, a public servant with a long career in the civil service, has resigned.

It has been reported that Patel, a prominent Vote Leave campaigner, will be handed a written warning and was ordered to make an apology.

The prime minister came under significant criticism earlier this year for failing to sack his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, over his infamous breach of the coronavirus regulations.

Critics have accused Johnson of not having the mettle for confrontation, and of bending the rules for those in his inner circle.

Some reports have suggested that while Johnson may not sack Patel or ask her to resign, he could move her to a different position in a reshuffle later this year or early next year.

How has Patel responded?

The home secretary has issued a carefully worded apology, that does not concede any wrongdoing.

She said: “I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people. It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone.”

What are Patel’s critics saying?

Labour has written to the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, urging it to investigate Patel’s conduct, and allegations that the prime minister interfered with the investigation.

The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said: “These are deeply serious revelations and have all the hallmarks of a cover up from the prime minister.”

What are her allies saying?

Several Tory MPs have offered Patel their support.

Tom Tugendhat tweeted that she was popular across the party because she was “hardworking, determined and has been very kind to many”.

Another Tory MP, Julie Marson, said Patel was doing a “huge job”, adding: “Like many women operating in a man’s world, you have to be strong and decisive.”

The Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said he was “proud that my friend and neighbour @pritipatel is leading the Home Office and delivering increased police numbers and secure borders”.

The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, also tweeted his support.

.@pritipatel is a formidable Home Secretary. Under her stewardship the HO has recruited thousands of police officers and introduced an Immigration Bill to safeguard our borders. Priti is an asset to government and a great Great Officer of State.

— Jacob Rees-Mogg (@Jacob_Rees_Mogg) November 19, 2020


Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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