Home Office chief Sir Philip Rutnam quits over Priti Patel 'bullying'

Aaron Walawalkar

The Home Office’s top civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam, has resigned and announced plans to sue the government for constructive dismissal after a series of clashes with the home secretary, Priti Patel.

Rutnam was emotional as he said he would step down after 33 years because he had become the “target of vicious and orchestrated campaign against him,” which he accused Patel of orchestrating.

The Labour leadership contender Sir Keir Starmer demanded that Patel attend parliament on Monday to explain herself and called for the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, to investigate the circumstances surrounding Rutnam’s departure.

Rutnam, the former permanent secretary, said he had been accused of briefing the media against Patel, an accusation he said was completely false.

“The home secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her,” he said. “She has not made the efforts I would expect to disassociate herself against from the comments.”

Related: Priti Patel: how the bullying allegations unfolded

Rutnam said he had tried to reconcile with Patel at the request of the cabinet secretary and Boris Johnson. “But despite my efforts to engage with her, Priti Patel has made no efforts to engage with me to discuss this,” he said.

He said this gave him very strong grounds to claim for constructive dismissal, which he would be pursuing in the courts. He said his treatment was “part of a wider pattern in government”.

The simmering tensions between Patel and her permanent secretary surfaced last weekend with various reports about a rift between the two. Rutnam made light of those reports when he appeared at a police summit in London on Thursday, saying: “You probably have already heard a great deal more about permanent secretaries in the last few days than you ever expected to.”

The reports of feuding at the top of the Home Office prompted Sedwill, to tell all civil servants that advice they provided for ministers and any debates around it should remain private.

Various reports last weekend suggested Patel had clashed with senior officials, belittled colleagues and was distrusted by intelligence chiefs. One report suggested Patel had tried to move Rutnam from her department after the rows.

The swirl of reports about turmoil in the Home Office prompted Downing Street to insist last Monday that the prime minister had full confidence in Patel.

Patel expressed concern at the claims, which she described as false, while allies described her as a demanding boss but not a bully. The government denied claims that MI5 chiefs did not trust Patel and were limiting intelligence-sharing as a result.

Starmer said that Rutnam’s departure was the latest development in a body of “growing evidence of a serious breakdown of government”. He tweeted: “The prime minister’s handling of the flooding and coronavirus has been woeful, advisers in Number 10 are out of control, and attacks on the civil service are growing. I would therefore call on the liaison committee to hold an urgent inquiry into the culture and workings of government.”

Rutnam made clear his anger in his statement on Saturday, which he read to the BBC outside an address in north London. He said he had received allegations that Patel’s conduct had included belittling people and making unreasonable demands.

He said: “One of my duties as permanent secretary was to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our 35,000 people. This created tension with the home secretary and I have encouraged her to change her behaviours.

“I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands – behaviour that created fear and that needed some bravery to call out.”

He claimed the Home Office offered him a financial settlement to avoid his public resignation, and he said he hoped his stand “may help in maintaining the quality of government in this country”.

A statement from Sedwill thanked Rutnam for his “long and dedicated career of public service” and announced that Shona Dunn, the second permanent secretary at the Home Office responsible for borders, immigration and citizenship, would become acting permanent secretary.

Rutnam’s resignation is likely to intensify criticism of the home secretary and put renewed focus on the drive by the PM’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, to shake up the civil service.

Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said the allegations reflected “extremely badly on the government”.

She said: “To end up with one of the most senior public servants in the country taking court action against one of the great offices of state shows a shocking level of breakdown in the normal functioning of government.

“For the home secretary and prime minister to have allowed things to reach this point is appalling, especially at a time when the Home Office faces crucial challenges with rising violent crime, forthcoming counter-terror legislation, new immigration laws, and sensitive negotiations on post-Brexit security cooperation.”

Cooper said an employment tribunal could take months. “We cannot afford to have a dysfunctional and distracted Home Office while this tribunal is going on,” she said. “The work of the Home Office and the home secretary is far too important for that. The prime minister and the cabinet secretary therefore have a duty to investigate these allegations to a much faster timetable so that the normal functioning of the Home Office can be restored.

“The Home Office is too important a department to function with a poisoned relationship between the home secretary and her civil servants.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said the PM “must come to the House of Commons to answer Sir Philip Rutnam’s allegations without delay”.

Labour’s Stephen Doughty, a member of the Commons home affairs committee during the last parliament, said Patel’s position as home secretary “must now also be in question”.

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokeswoman, Christine Jardine, said serious questions needed to be asked about the culture that was being created at the Home Office. “The Tories are acting just like Donald Trump, putting ideology ahead of competence, and it’s the British people who will pay the price,” she said.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, the senior public servants’ union, said the resignation “demonstrates once again the destructive consequences of anonymous briefings against public servants who are unable to publicly defend themselves”.

He said: “This cowardly practice is not only ruining lives and careers but at a time when the Home Office is being tasked with delivering a demanding government agenda on immigration, and preparing for a public health emergency, it has diverted energy and resource into responding to unfounded accusations from sources claiming to be allies of the home secretary.”

Penman said the Home Office now needed to find new leadership at a time when it needed stability. He said: “Those who engage in anonymous briefings need to bear the responsibility for this destructive behaviour. Only the prime minister can put a stop to this behaviour and unless he does so, he will have to accept his own responsibility for the consequences.”