No 10 faces legal challenge to PM’s support for Priti Patel on bullying claims

Senior civil servants’ union move for judicial review allegations adds to pressure on Boris Johnson

The government faces a legal challenge to Boris Johnson’s decision to back Priti Patel over bullying allegations, throwing a fresh spotlight on the prime minister’s approach to ethics in public life.

Alex Allan, Johnson’s independent adviser on the ministerial code, resigned last year after the prime minister chose not to act on a critical report about Patel.

After a Cabinet Office investigation, citing instances in which she had shouted and sworn at staff, Allan found Patel had displayed “behaviour that can be described as bullying” and that she had “not consistently met the high standards expected of her”.

His report suggested she had breached the ministerial code, even if unintentionally.

Johnson decided she had not breached the code, however, and subsequently urged his colleagues to “form a square around the Prittster”.

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, has brought a judicial review of his decision, probing the legal status of the ministerial code, which will be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice next Wednesday and Thursday.

Dave Penman, the FDA’s general secretary, said: “Civil servants should expect to work with ministers without fear of being bullied or harassed.

“The prime minister’s decision, which he said reflected the home secretary’s assertion that her actions were unintentional, also potentially allows ministers to avoid the consequences of their behaviour in future by pleading that it should be the intent of their actions which is important, not the consequences.

“The result is that civil servants’ confidence in challenging unacceptable behaviour from ministers has been fatally damaged.”

He added that 90% of civil servants in a recent survey carried out by the union said they had no confidence in the ministerial code as a way of dealing with bullying or harassment by ministers.

Johnson took the unusual step earlier this week of insisting the UK is “not remotely a corrupt country”, amid a slew of sleaze claims after his botched bid to protect disgraced former MP Owen Paterson from a 30-day suspension for paid lobbying.

Decisions on whether backbench MPs have breached their code of conduct are taken by the cross-party committee for standards, after an investigation by the independent watchdog, Kathryn Stone, and must then be rubber-stamped by the House of Commons.

But the prime minister is the ultimate arbiter of whether the ministerial code has been broken – and Johnson chose to override Allan’s findings in Patel’s case.

The home secretary subsequently reached a six-figure settlement with the former permanent secretary of her department, Sir Philip Rutnam, after claims that he was forced out of his job for intervening in her alleged bullying.

Whitehall sources said that Rutnam received a £340,000 settlement with a further £30,000 in costs. He had threatened to take the home secretary to an employment tribunal hearing.

Resigning in February last year, Rutnam claimed he had been the victim of a “vicious and orchestrated campaign against him”, which Patel had organised. Patel has consistently denied that claim and rejected allegations of bullying.

A report from the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, published last week, urged the government to strengthen the powers of the independent adviser on ministers’ interests – currently Lord Geidt, who was appointed to succeed Allan.

The committee said he should be able to launch his own investigations; his reports should be published promptly; and the government should publish the range of sanctions that could be applied to ministers who breach the rules in future.

“Meaningful independence is the benchmark for any effective form of standards regulation and current arrangements for the adviser still fall below this bar,” the committee said.


Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Boris Johnson faces legal challenge for clearing Priti Patel of bullying
Lawyers for FDA union send pre-action notice accusing prime minister of acting unlawfully

Rajeev Syal

10, Dec, 2020 @1:44 PM

Article image
What they said: three key players in the Priti Patel bullying affair
As Sir Alex Allan resigns, Priti Patel apologises and Home Office chief issues statement

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

20, Nov, 2020 @2:32 PM

Article image
Priti Patel bullying row: ex-Home Office chief launches tribunal claim
Sir Philip Rutnam takes action under whistleblowing laws, claiming constructive dismissal

Rajeev Syal

20, Apr, 2020 @11:30 AM

Article image
Priti Patel bullying inquiry delay 'eroding trust' within Whitehall
Union writes to PM amid suspicions ministers may be behind Home Office asylum leaks

Rajeev Syal

02, Oct, 2020 @2:29 PM

Article image
PM's ethics adviser queries Johnson's role in Priti Patel inquiry
Jonathan Evans says PM having sole discretion over inquiries risks looking like ‘marking your own homework’

Rajeev Syal

24, Nov, 2020 @3:09 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson fights off legal challenge over Priti Patel bullying claims
FDA union brought judicial review after PM went against findings of his ministerial standards adviser

Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor

06, Dec, 2021 @10:45 AM

Article image
Officials ‘blocked access to witness’ in Priti Patel inquiry
Sir Alex Allan made repeated attempts to interview former top Home Office civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam, but was stymied

Mark Townsend and Toby Helm

21, Nov, 2020 @6:13 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson under fire over ‘no place for bullying’ claim
PM accused of double standards after email to staff in wake of Priti Patel case

Rajeev Syal

23, Nov, 2020 @1:30 PM

Article image
Ken Clarke joins criticism of Boris Johnson's refusal to sack Priti Patel
Ex-home secretary says he is particularly concerned by resignation of PM’s ethics adviser over issue

Molly Blackall

21, Nov, 2020 @10:31 AM

Article image
Boris Johnson adviser quits after being overruled on Priti Patel bullying report
PM’s backing of home secretary criticised as No 10 fails to deny reports he tried to get findings toned down

Heather Stewart and Simon Murphy

20, Nov, 2020 @7:12 PM