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


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.

Source: The Guardian