Pressure mounts on Priti Patel to quit amid fresh bullying claims
Allegations come hours after Cabinet Office launches formal inquiry into behaviour
Mon 2 Mar 2020 20.28 GMTFirst published on Mon 2 Mar 2020 16.00 GMT
The home secretary, Priti Patel, faced claims of bullying after Sir Philip Rutnam quit as permanent secretary of the Home Office. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/LNP
Priti Patel has come under increased pressure to resign as home secretary as another bullying allegation emerged just hours after the Cabinet Office launched a formal inquiry into claims she had mistreated her permanent secretary.
In claims reported by the BBC, the embattled minister was accused of shouting at a former aide with “unprovoked aggression” before removing her from her job.
The aide received a £25,000 government payout after a threatened lawsuit in which Patel was named, the report said, adding that Patel was accused of shouting at the aide to “get lost” and “get out of her face”.
The legal correspondence alleges that the civil servant took an overdose of prescription medicine shortly after the October 2015 incident.
The explosive new allegations followed Boris Johnson’s decision to launch a Cabinet Office investigation into earlier claims Patel had lied and bullied her permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam.
Rutnam quit on Saturday after accusing Patel of orchestrating a “vicious” campaign against him, of lying about her involvement in it and of creating a climate of fear in her department.
Soon after, the government conceded in response to an urgent question from Jeremy Corbyn that there would be an inquiry into Patel’s actions. The new set of allegations accused her of acting “without warning” and with “an unprovoked level of aggression”.
After being dismissed from her job in October 2015, the former aide launched a formal complaint of bullying and harassment against the department and Patel, according to the report.
Her grievance letter alleges she had previously attempted to kill herself after reporting allegations of workplace bullying in 2014, before Patel was a minister.
The staff member also alleges she was told the decision to dismiss her was made because Patel did not “like [her] face”, according to comments attributed to her line manager and a colleague.
The Department for Work and Pensions did not admit liability and the case did not come before a tribunal, the BBC said.
In the House of Commons, Corbyn said if the earlier “serious allegations” raised by Rutnam about the home secretary’s conduct were true “then that would clearly constitute a breach of the ministerial code”.
The Labour leader 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?
“It’s not enough just to refer this to the Cabinet Office. The government must now call in an external lawyer as quite rightly suggested by the union for senior civil servants, the First Division Association,” he said.
Responding to Corbyn, the de facto deputy prime minister Michael Gove said: “Allegations have been made that the home secretary has breached the ministerial code. The home secretary absolutely rejects these allegations.
“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.
“As is usual, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, is available to provide advice to the prime minister.”
Asked by the Labour MP Hilary Benn if there were any complaints about Patel when she was international development secretary or an employment minister, Gove said the inquiry would consider all complaints against her.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said the cabinet inquiry falls short of the independent inquiry his members have demanded.
“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.
“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,” he said.
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”.
Allegations that Patel bullied staff emerged 12 days ago when she was accused of belittling officials in meetings, making unreasonable demands and creating an “atmosphere of fear”.
Rutnam claims he was briefed against across the media by sources said to be from either No 10 or friends or allies of Patel. He was accused of being unable to do his job, of being undeserving of his pension, and was compared to Eeyore.
The Cabinet Office tried to negotiate a leaving package including a payoff for Rutnam if he left the department quietly. But the negotiations broke down late on Friday night.
Bruce Carr QC, who reviewed the UK’s employment legislation on behalf of the coalition government, said Patel would be expected to appear before an employment tribunal under usual circumstances.
“If the home office is going to defend the claim properly then its going to be quite difficult to do so without her coming and giving an explanation for her own conduct. It doesn’t look great from the tribunals perspective if the main protagonist doesn’t turn up and explain themselves,” he said.
The prime minister and Cummings could also be asked to appear before the tribunal, but this remains “unlikely” Carr said.
“It is not impossible but I would think they will do their upmost to avoid it,” he said.
If Rutnam wins claim of unfair dismissal without an additional ‘protected characteristic” such as a discrimination or whistleblowing claim, his potential compensation would be severely limited, Carr said.
“He doesn’t appear to have a whistleblowing claim. So it is an ordinary unfair dismissal claim as to which the maximum you would get is something around £80,000, as a basic award tied to his length of service. So it would not exceed around £85,000,” he said.
A spokesperson for the DWP declined to comment.
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