Home secretary Priti Patel has been accused of “bullying” and “belittling” officials and “creating an ‘atmosphere of fear’” as it emerged she has tried to get rid of her most senior civil servant “after a toxic clash at the top of the Home Office”.
The Times splashed with the headline “Home Office at war after staff accuse bully Patel” with a report that she “demanded” the removal of the department’s top official, the permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam.
He is believed to have raised concerns about the home secretary’s behaviour and The Times quotes a “senior Whitehall source” as saying the situation has become “completely unsustainable and was going to blow up.”
Patel’s unreasonable demands
Whilst there have been no “formal” complaints made against the home secretary, staff at the Home Office have reportedly accused Patel of making unreasonable demands of civil servants, belittling officials and “taking an angry and aggressive tone in meetings”.
Rallying to Patel’s support was business minister Hadhim Zahawi who denied the bullying claims and said the person she has known for 25 years is an “utterly professional…brilliant, collegiate team player.”
BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said Patel’s supporters acknowledge she is a demanding minister but one who works “incredibly hard” in a tough department with difficult decisions to make, and that Patel “is not rude and doesn’t belittle officials” or bully them.
Intemperate and rude home secretary
However, Shaw told BBC Radio 4’s World at One, he has spoken to “a well placed source” about the bullying claims made by officials who describe her as “intemperate” and “rude” as well as being demanding and “demeaning” of officials.
Home Office officals’ “welfare and workload” has become an issue and concerns about this came to a head last week when a senior official collapsed after a meeting. The Independent reports “he had been working through the night to overturn a High Court ruling barring the deportation of foreign nationals to Jamaica.” (The official was taken to hospital and found to have a sodium deficiency).
Patel and Rutnam are ‘simply not the right fit’
Since Patel was appointed by Johnson to the position July, the home secretary has had a “number of genuine disagreements” with Rutnam, and “although there have been “no blazing rows, there certainly have been some arguments”, said the BBC’s Shaw.
Patel and Rutnam are “simply not the right fit and attempts have been made to move him”, said Shaw adding that it’s not unusual for new ministers to want “to shuffle a few officials around, but to try and remove a permanent secretary is quite a step to take”.
Patel is ‘completely out of her depth’
He added: “Her performance yesterday [announcing the government’s post-Brexit immigration plans] was inept. The record that she’s had, in terms of the way she deals with people is very worrying.”
Patel has “huge support in Downing Street from Boris Johnson – he appointed her, he has faith and trust in her, and reappointed her so politically she’s okay,” said Shaw.
“But, that department [Home Office] is really hard to run. They have so many challenges and what you can’t have is staff who are against you and not on your side and that could be a problem in the months to come.”
Patel was forced to resign from her role as international development secretary in November 2017 following revelations she had numerous meetings with Israeli government officials, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “without following protocol or notifying fellow ministers or officials” about them. She was elected as MP for Witham in 2010
Sir Philip Putnam profile
Rutnam has been at the Home Office for almost three years and was at the centre of controversy when former home secretary Amber Rudd was forced to resign following the Windrush scandal when senior officials were accused of not giving Rudd correct advice.
He was appointed as permanent secretary to the Home Office in April 2017 having held the same position at the Department for Transport for five years. Putnam became the Civil Service Disability Champion in April 2015 and has previously been Director General, Business and Skills at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
He has also worked at Ofcom as a partner from 2003 and board member from 2007-09, and worked in corporate finance for Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong.
Putnam also represented the UK at the European Investment Bank and worked as private secretary to the Financial Secretary (the minister responsible for tax policy and customs, including border readiness).
The 55-year-old describes himself as a “keen cyclist, runner, archaeologist” on his Twitter bio.