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The consequences of Philip Rutnam’s dramatic resignation from the Home Office 

Philip Rutnam's resignation and the mess that follows and its aftermath will have consequences for the Home Office and the government’s wider agenda

While Philip Rutnam’s resignation was probably unavoidable, Alex Thomas says the mess that follows and its aftermath will have consequences for the Home Office and the government’s wider agenda.

The tensions in the Home Office have reached a climax with Sir Philip Rutnam’s resignation. It is normal for civil servants to move around, and it is not unusual for permanent secretaries to quietly leave when a new government arrives. But by making a televised statement and announcing his intention to pursue a claim for unfair dismissal, Rutnam set a new standard, eclipsing even Sir Ivan Rogers’ dramatic resignation in January 2017.

That Rutnam will not have done this lightly following a 33 year career shows the depths to which relationships had sunk in the Home Office. Whatever happened behind the scenes, in recent weeks it has become clear that it was not tenable for the two leaders of the department to both continue in their jobs, publicly at loggerheads.

A fierce blame game will follow Rutnam's resignation

Rutnam’s legal action is not unprecedented at lower levels in the civil service, with Brodie Clark, who worked in the UK Border Agency, and Derek Lewis of the Prison Service pursuing similar action. But it is unheard of for a permanent secretary. And if Rutnam holds fast it creates a major headache for Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary and himself formerly civil service head of the Home Office. No government likes airing its laundry in public. Depending on how Rutnam proceeds and the evidence he is able to bring, this could get very messy for both ministers and the wider civil service. Sedwill might rue not bringing this crisis to a less public resolution sooner.

Even setting the legal process aside, we can expect ferocious briefing. Rutnam’s position is that the home secretary was placing unreasonable demands on the department and bullying staff, and allies of Priti Patel have been claiming that her former top official was slowing or blocking progress and failing to respond to her political direction. They may also soon be able to point to the Williams review into the Windrush scandal, which leaked reports suggest will be critical of the Home Office. Rutnam’s exit means he will not be on the front line responding to those findings when they arrive.

Rutnam's resignation will have a significant effect on the Home Office

Sedwill quickly announced that Shona Dunn would succeed Rutnam as acting permanent secretary. She was previously number two in the department, and has experience in the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education. So the work will go on, and of course there are thousands of other officials in the Home Office to take its difficult agenda forward. While the present environment will make it harder to find a successor, there are always those willing to serve.

But these disruptive events will have left their mark. A sense of mistrust among both ministers and civil servants will linger, and a workplace where everybody is watching their back is not conducive to high productivity. Rutnam’s legal action, if and when it proceeds, will also distract the department from its objectives.

The Home Office is an enormously sensitive and difficult place to run at the best of times. John Reid famously described it as “not fit for purpose”, which led to it being split up and the creation of the Ministry of Justice. And it boasts a roll call of scandals: a row over the release of foreign prisoners ended Charles Clarke’s ministerial career, and the processing of immigration applications forced Beverley Hughes’ resignation. More recently Windrush brought down Amber Rudd and Patsy Wilkinson, Dunn’s predecessor as second permanent secretary.

Add to that the seismic task of preparing a new immigration system for the end of the year, as well as other major changes at the border, and there must be more than a risk – a likelihood, in fact – that the burden on the department is unsustainable, and the Brexit programme is undeliverable in its proposed timeframe.

There will be a wider impact across the government and civil service

These events also ripple out well beyond the Home Office. While the turnover of permanent secretaries is not currently particularly high – we might expect six to eight replacements to be needed each year – Whitehall-watchers will be keenly looking to see who fills jobs as they come up, and whether they are seen as people who can speak truth to power.

Rutnam’s actions will give some civil servants heart that there are people at the top of departments who will risk, or end, their careers to do what they think is right. Some ministers will welcome a clash with what they see as an oppressive and risk-averse bureaucracy. But wiser heads on both sides will realise that these public rows are damaging for all concerned and, while it might get much less attention outside Westminster than the prime minister’s marriage and family news, will make it less, not more, likely that the government will achieve its long term aims.

Johnson government
Home Office
Institute for Government

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