Former UK civil service chief says home secretary should resign

By on 20/11/2020
The former UK Cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell today added his voice to those calling for home secretary Priti Patel to resign. Credit: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street/ Flickr.

The former UK Cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell today added his voice to those calling for home secretary Priti Patel to resign.

This follows an independent report, which found that she had broken the Ministerial Code by bullying staff. Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled that the Code was not broken, prompting the report’s author to resign this afternoon.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme this afternoon, O’Donnell – who served as Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 2005 to 2011 ­– was asked whether Patel should quit. “Yes, in my view,” he replied. “Now, the prime minister thinks there has been no breach of the ministerial code. I personally take the judgement of Alex Allan that there was a breach of the ministerial code.”

Investigation into bullying

After allegations of bullying by Patel, Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam – who is taking the government to an employment tribunal – resigned earlier this year. Sir Alex Allan, Johnson’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, investigated whether the home secretary had broken the ministerial code.

He submitted his report two months ago, but the PM did not act until it leaked this week, announcing that his “judgement is that the ministerial code was not breached”. The report summary shows that while Allan said the civil service needs to reflect on its role, his judgement was unequivocal.

Allan wrote: “My advice is that the home secretary has not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect. Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally.”

The report’s findings explain that “the definition of bullying adopted by the civil service accepts that legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance will not amount to bullying. It defines bullying as intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down. Instances of the behaviour reported to the Cabinet Office would meet such a definition.”

O’Donnell was supportive of Allan’s decision to resign. “The prime minister has [done] what he’s allowed to do under the current system, [which] is to say: ‘Well I disagree with the view of my independent investigator’,” he said. “And Alex, to my mind quite rightly, has said: ‘Well look, if you don’t value my judgement then there’s really little point in me carrying on with this job,’ so he’s resigned.”

Part of a wider problem

The episode is a sign of “wider problems with the system”, according to O’Donnell. One problem is that only the prime minister can decide whether there should be an investigation, he said, pointing to recent issues including the report from the National Audit Office into procurement during the COVID-19 crisis.

“There appear to be allegations that I would have thought should be investigated and yet no investigations are happening. So first of all we need an independent investigator to take these on, as has been recommended by the Commissioner on Standards in Public Life, Jonathan Evans.”

A new system should allow for “graduation” around whether the ministerial code has been broken, said O’Donnell: at the moment, it’s a yes/no decision. “I don’t think this problem arises here,” he added, “because breaching it for bullying is quite clearly across the line.” But he reflected on a previous example involving David Blunkett in 2005, where he felt the breach was less significant and yet the minister resigned.

There are wider cultural problems in government, said O’Donnell. He pointed to increased use of written directions and unregulated appointments, as raised by complaints from Peter Riddell, commissioner for public appointments. The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has also recently raised concerns about conduct. “I think the trust in government – and the trust in integrity of government – is being tried very hard,” said O’Donnell.

This afternoon, Evans issued a statement saying: “Sir Alex Allan is a man of great wisdom and integrity and it is deeply concerning that he has resigned. This episode raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the current arrangements for investigating and responding to breaches of the Ministerial Code.”

At this time, said the former Cabinet secretary, we need the civil service and ministers to work well together to address the huge challenges of COVID-19. In a pointed comparison, O’Donnell said that “you’ve got great ministers” in government, highlighting how Chancellor Rishi Sunak is working with civil service colleagues in the Treasury. “They are working as a team, producing great results,” he noted, adding that problems like Patel’s don’t arise across government.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected]

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