An employment tribunal claim was lodged today against UK home secretary Priti Patel under whistleblowing laws.
Former Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam has said he was constructively dismissed from his role after accusing the home secretary of bullying behaviour. He had told the Cabinet Office that Patel had belittled officials in meetings and placed unreasonable demands on staff.
Patel, who is also being investigated by the Cabinet Office over her behaviour, has denied claims that she bullied civil servants in three government departments, and has received the full backing of prime minister Boris Johnson.
Rutnam said he would make a “protected disclosure” under whistleblowing laws. The case is the first time an employment tribunal has heard allegations about a secretary of state by a former permanent secretary.
Rutnam’s claim will most likely focus on Patel’s treatment of senior civil servants in the Home Office. There were media reports suggesting that a Home Office official collapsed after a tense meeting with the home secretary. It is also thought that Patel successfully arranged for another senior official in the department to be moved from their job.
After these events, Rutnam wrote to all senior civil servants in the department highlighting the dangers of workplace stress and sought to remind ministers that civil servants should not be expected to do unrealistic work outside office hours.
Rutnam resigned on 29 February, reading a statement outside his home that accused Patel of orchestrating a “vicious” campaign against him, of lying about her involvement in it and of creating a climate of fear in her department.
According to The Guardian, Rutnam is expected to be represented by Gavin Mansfield QC, the head of Littleton Chambers and an employment law specialist. He will be supported by Clive Howard from the law firm Slater & Gordon.
Patel is likely to be called as a witness, as well as her special advisers, and the government would be asked for full disclosure of emails and correspondence between Patel, her staff, the Cabinet Office and No 10.
The Cabinet Office probe into the allegations is being carried by Sir Alex Allan, the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, but is not binding in any way; the prime minister could overrule Allan and keep the findings secret.
Chief executive of whistleblowing advice body Protect, Liz Gardiner, said the case showed how “whistleblowing laws can be used to hold even those in the highest office to account.”
She said: “Far too often we see managers and senior personnel disregarding codes of conduct, and bullying behaviour is too prevalent in today’s workplace. Ministers, as public office holders, have to adhere to the Nolan principles and their own ministerial code. This includes being accountable to the public for their decisions, and being scrutinised for that. We will watch this case with interest.”
Vanessa James, a partner in the employment team of law firm Ashfords, described for Personnel Today the legal process behind establishing protected disclosure claim (referred to as whistleblowing):
“It is first necessary to identify the ‘disclosure’ that is relied upon then determine how such disclosure is ‘protected’ in law. For such disclosure to qualify it must relate to one of the statutory ’relevant types of wrong doing’ and be shown to be in the public interest. Reporting that a senior person in public office is alleged to have acted in a bullying way to junior staff has potential to qualify as a ‘protected disclosure’. There is no need to show that the disclosures were actually true, just that the person making them reasonably considered them to be accurate.
“Once a disclosure is deemed as ‘protected’ then to succeed the claimant must demonstrate that they were subject to ‘detrimental treatment’ as a result of having made the disclosure and in most cases this will involve an element of disputed fact between the parties that will have to be determined by a tribunal Judge often making it the most challenging part of the claim to establish. It is not uncommon for defendants to admit that disclosures were made, but that such disclosures were not protected and in any event any alleged detrimental treatment did not occur, or if it did occur it was for a reason unrelated to the disclosure.”