In Depth

The allegations against Priti Patel

Permanent secretary refused to obey order to remove senior official because it was Christmas

Priti Patel is once again being accused of mistreating civil servants after it emerged that she tried to have her director of communications sacked on Christmas Eve.

The home secretary asked her most senior official to fire Andy Tighe, head of news at the Home Office, but the department’s top civil servant refused to give the order, HuffPost says.

Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam declined Patel’s request, a move that led to the recent tensions between the pair.

Tighe chose to retire from the Home Office after nine years at the department, having overseen the communications response to the London Bridge attack and the Grenfell Tower fire.

Priti Patel has a record of bullying senior civil servants that stretches back five years, former government ministers and officials have claimed.

Patel is also alleged to have attempted to remove Rutnam, who is understood to have raised concerns about Patel’s behaviour within the Cabinet Office.   

What are the historic allegations to have surfaced?

Ministers who worked with Patel in government have described a “pattern” of unacceptable behaviour spanning her ministerial career, says The Times.

Concerns over Patel’s behaviour were raised with Number 10 in 2017 when she was serving as international development secretary.

A former minister who knew of her behaviour at the Department for International Development (Dfid) said of recent bullying accusations: “Is it a one-off? No it bloody isn’t. It’s her. It is exactly the same pattern of behaviour she showed when she was at Dfid.

“She had team meetings where she would deliberately dress officials down in front of their colleagues. There were also aggressive emails sometimes sent in the middle of the night.

“It is one thing to be a tough and demanding minister — and that is entirely appropriate — but there is a line that you do not cross. She persistently went over that line.”

Another senior figure in the department told The Times: “She was reviled in Dfid for her rudeness and insensitivity. She could not have been more hated for the way she treated people. She was just vile.”

The official said her time as secretary of state had been the “darkest period” of the department’s history.

Another former official said that Patel had been particularly rude to her private office. “She would come out [of] office and say, ‘Why is everyone so f***ing useless.’”

Patel was also subject to complaints when she was employment minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) between 2015 and 2016.

Three individuals working at DWP under Patel’s rule said she was subject to bullying allegations at the time. “She was strongly disliked by her private office, who found her a very difficult and unreasonable minister to deal with,” one said.

Patel had been named in a grievance complaint after one DWP official was signed off sick with stress.

Also while at DWP, Patel is said to have tried to remove two officials from her private office.

What are the ongoing accusations against Patel?

According to The Times, several sources say Patel has clashed with Home Official staff over her demands, some of which were considered illegal by officials.

During a meeting with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick in October, Patel allegedly demanded to know why police could not use force to stop Extinction Rebellion protests in London.

Describing Patel’s alleged clashes with her most senior official, a Home Office source told the newspaper: “Sir Philip and [she] have fundamental disagreements about the rule of law. He’s committed and she isn’t. She’s belittled him and caused consternation, and she frequently encourages behaviour outside the rule of law.”

A former official said Patel liked to play her staff off against one another, and was angry and aggressive in meetings. A third source added: “No one can see how this is going to be resolved. It is going to blow up sooner or later.”

Matters are reported to have come to a head after a senior Home Office official collapsed following an ill-tempered meeting with Patel.

The Times says he had been working through the night attempting, without success, to reverse a High Court judgment that barred the deportation of 25 criminals to Jamaica.

He reportedly fell ill after being confronted over his failure by Patel the next morning and was later taken to hospital, where he was found to have a sodium deficiency.

Responding to the claims, a Home Office spokesperson said there had been no “formal” complaints against Patel.

But Dave Penman, head of the FDA civil service union, said there was no formal process for civil servants to make complaints against ministers.

Arrangements are “simply not good enough”, he said, adding: “There is no written record, nothing in terms of process. It is the same as it used to be in parliament — people do not trust the system to be fair.”

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What about Rutnam?

A former official told The Times that Patel had lobbied No. 10 to remove Rutnam from the Home Office, but that the request was refused. “They didn’t want to create a narrative of them against the civil service,” the source said.

As well as allegedly trying to get Rutnam sacked, Patel is understood to have succeeded in having another senior official in the department moved from their job.

And while Rutnam has survived for now, some commentators believe he will be forced out eventually.

“Even if he is the wronged party, Sir Philip’s position is probably untenable,” says The Times. “But unless she makes friends rather than enemies quickly, Ms Patel’s days will be numbered too.”

And the reaction?

The Home Office issued a statement earlier this week denying the rumours of a spat between Patel and Rutnam.

“The home secretary and permanent secretary are deeply concerned about the number of false allegations appearing in the media.

“They are focused on delivering on the Home Office’s hugely important agenda, which includes creating an immigration system that works for the UK, putting more police on the streets and keeping the public safe from terrorism.”

Supporters of the home secretary have denied the bullying claims, insisting that while she can be demanding, she is not unreasonable. They also hit back at Rutnam, blaming him for Amber Rudd’s resignation over the Windrush scandal in 2018.

“The Home Office is dysfunctional and the current permanent secretary had presided over a sacking of a home secretary and accidental deportations,” a source told The Times.

“If this were any other environment, Philip Rutnam would not only be sacked, he’d be denied a pension. The lack of accountability in the civil service is deeply troubling and the prime minister will not accept this in the long term.”

Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi has also defended Patel, describing the home secretary as “brilliant and collegiate”, The Telegraph reports. Asked by LBC radio’s Nick Ferrari if she was “a bully”, Zahawi said: “No, I don’t think she is at all.”

The MP added that he had known Patel for 25 years and that she was “utterly professional and works night and day to deliver for the country and her constituents”.

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