Boris Johnson’s decision to ignore the verdict of his independent adviser on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allan, on a bullying inquiry into the home secretary has been met with indignation.
Allan, a public servant with a 47-year career in the civil service, was clear in his central finding that Priti Patel’s behaviour was in breach of the ministerial code, and he has resigned in the face of Johnson’s contrary ruling.
But did Allan’s statement on his findings leave the prime minister with some room for manoeuvre? Here we look at some of the key passages:
The home secretary says that she puts great store by professional, open relationships. She is action-orientated and can be direct. The home secretary has also become – justifiably in many instances – frustrated by the Home Office leadership’s lack of responsiveness and the lack of support she felt in DfID [the Department for International Development] three years ago.
Analysis Allan says civil servants – particularly senior civil servants – should be able to handle robust criticism, though they should not “face behaviour that goes beyond that”. In his advice, Allan suggests that on more than one occasion Patel was justified in being frustrated at the operation of the Home Office. The background to the inquiry is a rift between Patel and the former top civil servant at the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit and launched tribunal proceedings against the minister. Allan acknowledges there were issues with the Home Office leadership – an allusion to Rutnam – and the lack of support.
‘May not be intentional’
The evidence is that this has manifested itself in forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing. This may not be done intentionally to cause upset, but that has been the effect on some individuals.
Analysis Here Allan gives the first hint of the sort of behaviour Patel was displaying – that is, shouting and swearing at civil servants. But he appears to excuse it with the caveat that is was not intentional, a feature he returns to, as well as calling the behaviour “forceful expression”.
‘Intimidating or insulting’
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.
Analysis This passage is particularly damning, suggesting that Patel engaged in behaviour that made civil servants feel “uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down.” However, Allan falls short of concluding as to whether the behaviour was proven to have taken place, saying the instances “reported” to the Cabinet Office “would” meet the definition.
The Home Office was not as flexible as it could have been in responding to the home secretary’s requests and direction. She has – legitimately – not always felt supported by the department. In addition, no feedback was given to the home secretary of the impact of her behaviour, which meant she was unaware of issues that she could otherwise have addressed.
Analysis Again, Allan criticises the Home Office and concludes that Patel “legitimately” did not feel supported by the department. He spells out that the home secretary was not given opportunity to address the criticism of her approach, which in the bureaucratic world of the civil service – where disciplinary procedures and complaint processes are followed meticulously by the book – is a crucial oversight.
‘In breach of the code’
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.
This conclusion needs to be seen in context. There is no evidence that she was aware of the impact of her behaviour, and no feedback was given to her at the time. The high pressure and demands of the role in the Home Office, coupled with the need for more supportive leadership from top of the department, has clearly been a contributory factor. In particular, I note the finding of different and more positive behaviour since these issues were raised with her.”
Analysis Despite all the caveats, and the nods towards Patel’s frustration, Allan does reach a conclusion. And that is that Patel did breach the ministerial code. But Downing Street appears to have seized on his finding that she did so “unintentionally” as a way to wriggle out of sacking her. Allan also excuses to some extent her behaviour, pinning some blame on the “high pressure” of office and lack of support from the then leadership – another nod to Rutnam. And he signs off by highlighting that Patel has shown somewhat of a turnaround and is behaving more positively since the allegations were raised.