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November 22, 2020

British PM tries to water down Home Secretary’s bullying report


November 22, 2020

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked his standards ministerial adviser Sir Alex Allen to tone down the official inquiry that found Home Secretary Priti Patel was involved in bullying of civil servants, sources have said.

Sources at Number 10 Downing Street have shared with the media that Boris Johnson asked Sir Allen to make changes in the report to make it “palatable” but the adviser refused to change the report. It emerged that the PM asked Sir Alex Allan to tone down his finding that Priti Patel’s behaviour amounted to bullying as he found instances of shouting and swearing.

Sir Allen quitted on Friday when Mr Johnson overruled his conclusion that Ms Patel breached the ministerial code and stood by his home secretary. Offering an "unreserved, fulsome apology", Ms Patel seized on Sir Alex's finding that she received no feedback on the impact of her behaviour.

Sir Philip Rutnam, who quitted as the Home Office's permanent secretary after accusing Ms Patel of a "vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign" against him, said Priti Patel was wrong as she was advised not to shout and swear at staff the month after her appointment in 2019 and that he told her to treat staff with respect "on a number of further occasions".

Sir Philip also said he was not interviewed for the inquiry despite him having launched a constructive dismissal claim at an employment tribunal.

Former diplomat and national security adviser Lord Ricketts said: "The ministerial code is policed by the prime minister and if the prime minister rejects the finding of his independent adviser then there is clearly something quite wrong with the situation. "It seems to imply that bullying by a senior minister is acceptable and that sends a very bad signal for relations between ministers and the civil service."

He added: "The country is facing such a serious issue with recovery from the pandemic, we need ministers and civil servants to be working together confidently, with trust and with frankness on both sides and this episode has not helped that."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "As you would expect, the prime minister spoke to Sir Alex Allan to further his understanding of the report. Sir Alex's conclusions are entirely his own."

Labour called for an urgent investigation and called for the "initial, unedited report" to be published in full.

Shadow Home Office Minister Holly Lynch said: "These are serious allegations that suggest Boris Johnson tried to interfere with an investigation into bullying accusations against one of his closest political allies."

The former home secretary Ken Clarke has expressed concern over the prime minister’s refusal to sack Priti Patel, despite a formal investigation finding evidence that she had bullied civil servants. He said: “It was assumed before that if an investigation was taken this far and if anyone was found to have broken the ministerial code, I don’t think anyone would have doubted the minister, to use the old phrase, would have to consider his or her position,” he said.

Clarke said he was particularly worried by the resignation of Sir Alex Allan, the prime minister’s ethics adviser, whom he described as “quiet and reasonable”.

The former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington also criticised Boris Johnson for backing Patel, condemning the decision as “completely unacceptable”. Normington said it was “the first time as far as I can remember we have a prime minister that doesn’t seem willing to stand up for high standards in public life”.

He told BBC Radio 4: “There needs to be a recognition from her [Patel] and the prime minister that she was found to have bullied staff, possibly in three departments not just the Home Office, and that is completely unacceptable.”

“The prime minister has simply put aside the findings of a report, and of the independent adviser, Sir Alex Allan, that she is a bully and you shouldn’t have bullies in government. We have to put ourselves in the position of the bullied. No one has spoken up for them, some of them are junior staff and who will be sitting there today thinking that their voice has not been heard and you cannot rely on the prime minister to stand up for them.”