Boris Johnson accused of ‘watering down’ Priti Patel bullying inquiry

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Boris Johnson was last night facing allegations he tried to water down the official inquiry that found Home Secretary Priti Patel bullied staff.

And he was told by a former top civil servant “you shouldn’t have bullies in Government”.

Sir David Normington, a former Home Office permanent secretary, added that the Prime Minister “doesn’t seem willing to stand up for high standards in public life” as he faced mounting criticism for backing Patel.

Downing Street did not deny suggestions that Johnson had tried and failed to convince his ministerial standards adviser, Sir Alex Allan, to tone down his conclusion that Patel’s behaviour amounted to bullying as he found instances of shouting
and swearing.

The adviser quit on Friday when the Prime Minister overruled his conclusion that Patel breached the ministerial code. Johnson also stood by his Home Secretary.

Normington, the top civil servant at the department until 2011, criticised Johnson for contradicting Allan.

Normington told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The Prime Minister has simply put aside the findings of a report, and of the independent adviser Sir Alex Allan, that she is a bully and you shouldn’t have bullies in government.

“We have to put ourselves in the position of the bullied. No one has spoken up for them.

“Some of them are junior staff who will be sitting there today thinking that their voice has not been heard and you cannot rely on the Prime Minister to stand up for them.

“For the first , as far as I can remember, we have a Prime Minister that doesn’t seem willing to stand up for high standards in public life.”

Conservative peer Ken Clarke, a former home secretary, said he was “troubled” by the “very awkward situation”.

He told Times Radio: “It was assumed before that if an investigation was taken this far and if anyone was found to have broken the ministerial code, I don’t think anyone would have doubted that the minister – to use the old phrase – would have to consider his or her position.”

Offering what she described as an “unreserved, fulsome apology”, Patel seized on Allan’s finding that she received no feedback on the impact of her behaviour.

But Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit as the Home Office’s permanent secretary after accusing Patel of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him, contested this.

He said she was advised not to shout and swear at staff the month after her appointment last year and that he had told her to treat staff with respect “on a number of further occasions”.

Rutnam also said he was not interviewed for the inquiry – despite having launched a constructive dismissal claim at an employment tribunal.

Meanwhile, the Times reported two unnamed senior Whitehall officials saying that the Prime Minister tried and failed to get Allan to tone down his report, to find there was no clear evidence of bullying.

Downing Street did not deny the report, with a No10 spokesman saying: “As you would expect, the Prime Minister spoke to Sir Alex Allan to further his understanding of the report. Sir Alex’s conclusions are entirely his own.”

Shadow home office minister Holly Lynch said the “initial, unedited report” must be published in full and called for an independent investigation.

Allan found Patel had not always treated civil servants with “consideration and respect” and concluded her approach on occasions “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals”.

He said Patel had “not consistently met the high standards required by the ministerial code” but said there was “no evidence she was aware of the impact of her behaviour”.

Patel apologised and said there were “no excuses” for what happened but highlighted Allan’s assessment of her awareness.

She told the BBC that “any upset I’ve caused is completely unintentional” and added, “of course it says it’s in the report that issues were not pointed out to me”.

The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Evans of Weardale, said Allan’s resignation was “deeply concerning” and that his committee would look “urgently” at what had happened as part of its review of the ministerial code.