UK Home Office perm sec quits, alleging bullying and smears by home secretary

By on 02/03/2020
Priti Patel is alleged to have demanded the removal of Rutnam from his post after he raised concerns about her behaviour to the Cabinet Office. (Image courtesy: DFID/flickr).

The Home Office permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, resigned on Saturday after 33 years in the civil service, issuing a statement in which he accused home secretary Priti Patel of bullying staff and mounting a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” of media briefings against him. In an unprecedented move, Rutnam is to sue the government for constructive dismissal.

In a statement to the BBC, Rutnam noted that Patel has denied any involvement in media stories claiming that he briefed journalists against her, but said: “I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the efforts I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments.”

He went on to criticise Patel’s behaviour in the department, saying: “One of my duties as permanent secretary was to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our 35,000 people. This created tension with the home secretary and I have encouraged her to change her behaviours.

“I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands – behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out.”

Rutnam said that he tried to effect a reconciliation with Patel, but she “has made no effort to engage with me. I believe that these events give me very strong grounds to claim constructive unfair dismissal, and will be pursuing that claim in the courts. My experience has been extreme but I consider there is evidence it was part of a wider pattern of behaviour.”

The Cabinet Office offered Rutnam a financial settlement in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement, he added, but he turned it down in the hope that making a public stand “may help in maintaining the quality of government in this country”.

Reports of rifts

There have been numerous reports of a rift between Rutnam and Patel in recent weeks. The Huffington Post reported on 27 February that Patel wanted to move director of communications Andy Tighe out of the Home Office, and asked Rutnam to deliver the news on Christmas Eve. He reportedly refused to do so until the new year, believing it cruel to effectively sack his colleague so close to Christmas, and the incident is understood to have worsened tensions between the pair.

As well as reports that Patel demanded the removal of Rutnam from his post after he raised concerns about her behaviour to the Cabinet Office, she has also been accused of forcing out two other officials, as reported by The Times, while a third is understood to have collapsed and required hospital treatment last month after a heated discussion with her.  

The Times cites multiple sources inside the department who accuse Patel of bullying, belittling officials in meetings, making unreasonable demands and creating an “atmosphere of fear”. And one “Whitehall insider” told the BBC that Patel had created a “hostile and unhappy” environment for civil servants at the Home Office by questioning their capability and undermining their performance. The BBC also reported that a formal complaint about Patel’s conduct was made when she was employment minister.

Though Patel has not made any public announcement since Rutnam’s resignation, she has previously denied she mistreated staff. Speaking during a visit to Public Health England in North London on Sunday, PM Boris Johnson said he “absolutely” has confidence in Patel. “I think she’s a fantastic home secretary,” he said. “Anybody who’s been home secretary will testify that is one of the toughest jobs in government.”

He added that he was “full of admiration for our civil service and the job that they do”.

Courage and integrity

In a tweet Dave Penman, general secretary of the senior public servants’ FDA union – which is supporting Rutnam – said he could have gone quietly with financial compensation, but that instead he has “chosen to speak out against the attacks on public servants. I know many thousands of his colleagues will recognise the courage and integrity he is showing in doing so.”

Rutnam’s decision, he added, “demonstrates once again the destructive consequences of anonymous briefings against public servants who are unable to publicly defend themselves.”

The FDA and the opposition Labour party have called on Sedwill to launch an independent inquiry into Patel’s behaviour.

Sedwill thanked Rutnam for his “long and dedicated career of public service”, and said he received the resignation “with great regret”. He announced that Shona Dunn, the second permanent secretary at the Home Office, who is responsible for borders, immigration and citizenship, is to become acting permanent secretary.

Wider implications

Commenting on the resignation in a Twitter thread, Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at think tank the Institute for Government, noted that “Rutnam’s decision to resign publically [sic] makes clear that he did not think the Cabinet Office would protect the department’s civil servants if he went quietly.” Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has “questions to answer”, she said, and “will be compromised by the implication he tried to hush this up.”

“Not sure internal applicants will be queuing up” to replace Rutnam, Rutter added, saying “the job looks impossible: a difficult Home Secretary, an undeliverable agenda all grafted onto one of the most troubled depts in government.” Number 10 may “see this as an opportunity to bring in an external candidate,” she said.

Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, who has previously advised the Labour Party, said the resignation was “extraordinary”. He said he must have been pushed to the very limit, and that his resignation will send “shockwaves” through the civil service. Kerslake believes that Patel might have to stand down if Rutnam wins his legal action.

Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said the allegations against Patel reflected “extremely badly on the government”. She said, as reported by The Guardian: “To end up with one of the most senior public servants in the country taking court action against one of the great offices of state shows a shocking level of breakdown in the normal functioning of government.”

Meanwhile, shadow Cabinet office minister Jon Trickett called for Johnson to answer Rutnam’s accusations in the House of Commons “without delay”.             

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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