Lawyers for Civil Service mandarins delivered a pre-action notice to Downing Street on Wednesday which accused the Prime Minister of acting unlawfully when he chose to stand by his Home Secretary and overrule his independent adviser.
The letter obtained by The Times accuses Mr Johnson of ‘setting a damaging precedent which gives carte blanche to the kind of unacceptable conduct which the home secretary was found to have committed.’
The action is the first step towards a judicial review which could force the government to make public the full Cabinet Office investigation led by Sir Alex Allan which concluded Ms Patel’s actions amounted to bullying.
Boris Johnson speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday
Home Secretary Priti Patel sitting on the front benches in the House of Commons last month
Sir Alex resigned last month after Mr Johnson tried to persuade him to tone down the report.
Overruling his adviser on ministerial standards, Mr Johnson acknowledged that while Sir Alex had concluded that Ms Patel’s behaviour could ‘on occasion’ be described ‘as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals’, he had ‘full confidence’ in the Cabinet minister and that he considered ‘this matter now closed.’
The legal challenge is being brought by the FDA union, which represents more than 500 senior officials in the Home Office.
It argues that normal employment standards should still apply within government.
The legal letter sent yesterday said: ‘Civil servants in the Home Office and beyond will rightly object to their conduct being measured against a standard of conduct and unacceptable bullying which, it seems, does not apply to the home secretary or other ministers.’
The FDA union is also backing Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit as the department’s permanent secretary after accusing Ms Patel of a ‘vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign’ against him.
Sir Philip Rutman, seen here addressing Parliament in 2019, quit as the Home Office’s permanent secretary after accusing Ms Patel of a ‘vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign’ against him
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, told The Times that his union had been backed into a corner by the Prime Minister’s refusal to sanction Ms Patel.
‘Forgotten in all of this sorry saga have been the civil servants who were found to have been bullied by one of the most powerful people in the country,’ he said.
‘Let down by the conduct of their minister, they have now been abandoned by the prime minister, who is also, ironically, the minister for the civil service.’
The ministerial code sets out the standard of conduct for ministers and delineates how they must discharge their duties.
Mr Johnson, writing in the foreword to the code last year, said: ‘There must be no bullying and no harassment.’
The code says that such misconduct ‘will not be tolerated.’
Sir Alex Allan resigned last month after the Prime Minister suggested that he tone down his report into Ms Patel’s bullying of civil servants
Sir Alex found Ms Patel had not always treated civil servants with ‘consideration and respect’ and concluded that her approach on occasions ‘amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals’.
He said Ms Patel had ‘not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code’, though he said there was ‘no evidence that she was aware of the impact of her behaviour’.
The Home Secretary apologised and said there were ‘no excuses’ for what happened but highlighted Sir Alex’s assessment of her awareness.
She told the BBC last month that ‘any upset that I’ve caused is completely unintentional and at the time, of course it says it’s in the report, that issues were not pointed out to me.’