Priti Patel gets 'storm' warning over senior civil servant clashes

Ben Quinn
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A former chief civil servant at the Home Office has warned that the department is in the grip of a number of “tropical storms” amid reports of clashes between Priti Patel and her chief mandarin.

Sir David Normington, a former permanent secretary who served under five ministers at the Home Office, also warned that the government’s timetable for a new immigration system would be “tight”.

He urged Patel, the home secretary, to work closely with the department’s permanent secretary amid suggestions that she is trying to oust him.

Normington’s intervention came as it was reported that a review into the Windrush scandal had been toned down, with the removal of a portion branding the department as “institutionally racist”.

Asked about current tensions at the top of the department, he told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that it could sometimes come as “very unwelcome news” when civil servants presented ministers with facts, evidence and sometimes advice to slow down proposals.

While he had no inside knowledge of what was happening between Patel and Sir Philip Rutnam, her permanent secretary, he added that the Home Office was currently experiencing a number of “tropical storms”.

“In those circumstances the best thing is for the home secretary and the permanent secretary to be absolutely in lock step, working together, bringing their different perspectives to get through the latest storm,” he said.

Normington also expressed concern about the challenges in rolling out an overhaul of immigration, which will involve introducing an Australian-style points system, which he said was being introduced to a “tight” timeframe.

“I am sure they have had some conversations about how tight it is inside the Home Office,” Normington said. “There is a lot to do. If you read what was published this week there is still a lot of detail to be put in place.

“Staff will have to be trained and retrained, guidance will have to be issued for employers and the public. There will need to be online application systems. That is a lot to do in 10 months.”

He added: “It’s really important that the home secretary, with her clear political direction, works well with senior civil servants, who have a lot of experience of implementing such systems. The proposals announced this week do involve a big change in quite a short time and they could do with working very closely together to get it implemented.”

Patel has clashed with the senior civil servant at the Home Office and has been accused of encouraging “behaviour outside the rule of law”, according to reports.

According to The Times, Patel has sought to oust Rutnam from the Home Office, and he has raised concerns with the Cabinet Office about the minister. She has been accused of belittling officials, making unreasonable demands and creating “an atmosphere of fear”, the paper reported.

Matters came to a head last week when a senior official collapsed after a meeting with Patel following an all-night effort to reverse a high court ruling barring the deportation of 25 foreign criminals to Jamaica.

Separately, warnings have been sounded not to water down a review into the Windrush scandal after it was reported a portion branding the Home Office “institutionally racist” was stripped out.

The Times reported sources saying the phrase “institutionally racist” had been included in an earlier draft of the Windrush review led by the inspector of constabulary, Wendy Williams, but had subsequently been removed.

The Labour MP David Lammy, a vocal campaigner over the scandal caused by the department’s “hostile environment” policy, demanded that the “truth must be published in full”.

“The Windrush scandal resulted in the systematic deportation and detention of black British citizens by the UK Home Office,” the Tottenham MP said.

“The victims’ nationality and rights were denied because of the colour of their skin. If this is not institutionally racist I have no idea what is.”