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The handling of the Priti Patel bullying inquiry has fatally undermined the Ministerial Code

The prime minister’s response to the Priti Patel inquiry means an overhaul of the Ministerial Code is now essential

Dr Catherine Haddon says the prime minister’s response to the Priti Patel inquiry means an overhaul of the Ministerial Code is now essential

As national anti-bullying week ended, the prime minister finally released Sir Alex Allan’s investigation into whether Priti Patel bullied staff in the Home Office. The internal row that delayed the report was clear to see: Allan concluded Patel had breached the Ministerial Code, even if she wasn’t aware she was bullying staff, but the prime minister concluded Patel had not breached the code and should not resign. Sir Alex's resignation as the prime minister’s independent adviser on Ministerial Code was simultaneously announced. In providing his answer to the Patel inquiry, Johnson has raised serious questions about whether the Ministerial Code is fit for purpose.

The prime minister’s decision not to sack Patel has become about much more than Patel

Boris Johnson has, as we have been told repeatedly over the many months of this investigation, decided to stick with Priti Patel. Just as with Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle visit, Johnson has decided that short-term political fallout is outweighed by the benefits of keeping an ally in post. As Sir Alex's resignation statement said, it is the prime minister’s right to make this decision. The Ministerial Code is his document, and he is judge and jury.

But while we have long known that this was the likely outcome, the prime minister’s chosen defence for his decision, and the fact that it is so clearly against the advice of his Ministerial Code adviser, is extraordinary. Every Ministerial Code investigation brings its own drama and there have been past inquiries where the conclusions were finely balanced, but it is hard to think of one where a prime minister has concluded differently from his own ministerial standards adviser, and said so.

It is the manner of Johnson’s defence that will now cause even greater problems. Patel has kept her job because Boris Johnson does not believe she broke the code. As such, and by disagreeing with Sir Alex’s verdict, the prime minister is effectively deciding his own interpretation of what constitutes bullying. He has opened up much wider questions about how the government handles bullying complaints and whether the Ministerial Code is fit for purpose as a check on the conduct and actions of ministers.

How bullying is handled in Whitehall is about far more than Patel’s position

The #metoo impact on parliament showed the problems for staff, working for politicians, who feel unable to bring complaints of bullying or harassment. We do not know the details found by Sir Alex, but we do know that he also raised concerns that Patel was not always supported by her department. His conclusions imply that he thinks senior officials are also responsible for the poor relationship. This is important, as is the fact that the current Home Office permanent secretary feels the situation is much improved. But the allegations of bullying have not gone away.

Rather than just being a defence of Patel, the conclusion that she did not even know she was bullying staff is itself a problem. Just as in parliament, if people in power have behaved in an unacceptable manner and not realised it, then more needs to be done to educate ministers about workplace behaviours and where the line is drawn. Likewise, if staff had not told Patel the impact of her behaviour, then that also suggests that officials need more support to be able to raise concerns. Both are problems that, especially if this is not a lone example, need to be addressed. Just as in parliament, it is not acceptable to say that politics is some kind of special profession with different rules from other workplaces. 

By taking advantage of the Ministerial Code's flexibility, the PM has fatally undermined the code's standing

But the process of this inquiry has consequences far beyond Patel’s future. It has damaged the code and the means to investigate ministers accused of breaking it. Incongruity between the prime minister’s and Sir Alex’s conclusions, the delay to publication, reports about attempts to change Sir Alex’s conclusions, and his decision to resign suggest a process that has become very politicised. That is an impossible situation for a code of conduct that is highly dependent on principle.

The Ministerial Code and its status are designed to give the prime minister a framework for holding his ministers to account. But the whole purpose of publishing the code and appointing an independent investigator was to provide a level of accountability that was more public and more rigorous than a purely backroom political decision. It has previously been suggested that the code should be taken out of the hands of the prime minister, but this has been countered, and often supported by senior officials as well as politicians, with the argument that each case is different and the prime minister needs the flexibility to make a judgement that is also political. But this defence is fatally flawed if the principles behind the code are not prioritised when it is applied.

The Patel inquiry has completely exposed the limits of the current set up and heightened calls for an investigative process with true independence from the prime minister. Some aspects of the code, covering leaking to newspapers, collective responsibility and, perhaps, accountability to parliament, can be highly political and are perhaps best interpreted within government and subject to parliamentary scrutiny. But others are about fundamental principles of being public office holders – financial and ethical propriety, bullying and harassment, misuse of public office. These must be subject to proper scrutiny and an inquiry protected from politicisation.

The power to hire and fire must, of course, remain with the prime minister, but it would be possible to design a system where a prime minister could still ignore an inquiry’s conclusions. The prime minister has decided that it is worth saving Priti Patel. It is the Ministerial Code that has instead paid the price.

Prime minister
Johnson government
Public figures
Priti Patel
Institute for Government

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