Atmosphere in Whitehall is ‘poisonous’, unions claim

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Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of drawing up plans to oust senior civil servants, which unions have described as a “self-destructive low” for Whitehall.

The FDA and Prospect unions claim that ministers have created a “poisonous” atmosphere for senior civil servants.

Government sources have claimed that home secretary Priti Patel sought to remove Sir Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary of the Home Office, while the prime minister has allegedly drawn up a “hit list” of senior civil servants and permanent secretaries for removal.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA Union, which represents permanent secretaries, said: “These cowardly briefings against officials – who they know are not allowed to answer back – do untold damage to the trust between civil servants and ministers, far wider than the ministries targeted in this round of back-stabbing.

“Civil servants will wonder what kind of organisation so publicly undermines its most senior and able staff for a quick headline, and potential candidates will wonder whether it’s the sort of workplace they want risk their reputation in.”

Prospect’s deputy general secretary Garry Graham said civil servants cannot offer honest policy advice to ministers if they feel they are under threat.

A Downing Street spokesperson told Personnel Today that the prime minister has “full confidence” in the work of the civil service and has been very clear there is no “hit list”. The spokesperson said the appointment of permanent secretaries like Sir Philip Rutnam was “a matter for the cabinet secretary”.

Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has reportedly written to civil servants, stating that the ability of ministers and officials to talk candidly and courteously was “crucial to the trust and confidence on which good governance depends”.

Since Johnson became prime minister in August, numerous reports of bullying in Whitehall have emerged.

One senior civil servant told the Guardian: “There is a poisonous, horrible atmosphere – a feeling that retribution could strike at any time for offering the wrong advice to the wrong person.”

There are also reports of bullying complaints made against Priti Patel, which have been refuted by the Home Office. The Department for International Development (DfID) has written to staff, stating that it has “zero tolerance” of bullying and harassment.

The email from DfID permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, said: “The entire leadership team and I take this very seriously and I want to reassure all staff that the department is here to support anyone who feels subject to unacceptable behaviour.”

He said there are procedures in place if staff have “particular concerns in relation to a minister”.

Yesterday it was reported that the government is seeking an HR policy lead for its special advisers.

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